Monday, May 09, 2005

Aristotle's virtue and the Big Mac tax

Two key terms for Aristotle are virtue and happiness. Virtue is the Greek word arete, (ar-e-TAY) which is better translated excellence. Happiness is the Greek word eudaimonia (you-die-mo-KNEE-a), which is better translated as as flourishing. That is, Aristotle, always the biologist, studies humans as a biological species, and wants to know what promotes human flourishing.

We might turn the question around, and ask: what kills humans? Here is a chart that I posted in January:

Number of deaths--and the cause
1.3 million--US abortion deaths in 2004 (est)
700,000--US heart disease deaths
560,000--US cancer deaths
107,000--US deaths in accidents
30,000--US suicides
20,000-US homicides
15-17,500--civilian deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war
14,000--US AIDS/HIV deaths
1371--US military deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war
59--death penalty executions in the US 2004

You'll notice right away that what kills people in the US does not correspond in any meaningful way to the usual liberal/conservative divisions in American politics. Abortion is the leading killer--which pro-life groups emphasize. But look at the next two: Heart disease and cancer. How much debate in the 2004 election focussed on cutting heart disease and cancer? Precious little.

Comes now the city of Detroit with a Big Mac tax. In light of the US death figures, and the extent to which cancer and heart disease are caused by ghastly US eating habits, the tax makes good sense as a health-care measure.

But this tax has roundly offended at least one well-known libertarian--on the standard grounds that all tax increases are bad. Now it is certainly good economics to keep taxes low. Aristotle refuted Marxist approaches to economics two thousand years before Marx was even born. And Reagan proved the validity of free market approaches in the 1980s. Private property and free markets--in W's catchy phrase, the Ownership Society--were central to Aristotle in the fourth century BC.

But unless you abolish government altogether, you've got to tax something. What you tax, you get less of; what you subsidize you get more of. In the US we tax work, income, savings, enterprise, and thrift. We subsidize non-work and welfare. If you tax things that create wealth and jobs, and then leave as tax-free foods that kill people, you shouldn't be surprised if your economy is lack-luster and if Americans have an obesity problem.

Of course, any tax can be overdone, and legislators need to avoid creating a black market. But it makes a lot more sense to tax Big Macs than to tax work, labor, and investment. An Aristotelian approach to taxation would involve reducing taxes on things that create wealth and shifting the tax burden toward those activities that are fundamentally harmful to human flourishing. It's not a magic bullet--but it's one small step toward a more rational human society, a civilization more in harmony with the design of the cosmos.

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