This morning I received an email from a friend who trades bonds in Chicago. The email had a link to a story entitled, “Sin Taxes Aren’t a Financial Panacea,” which warned Illinois and Chicago that non-traditional revenues like gambling, tobacco, and marijuana won’t solve the dire budget shortfalls. His first comment was direct, why wasn’t alcohol included in this list of sin taxes?
My first thought: is alcohol no longer sinful? And then my second: wait, sin taxes? Isn’t it interesting that we, as a supposed secular nation, still care about the sin?
A little bit of history.
Sin tax has its genesis in the sumptuary laws of Ancient Rome. These rules had their own lineage from the Twelve Tables and and the kings of Rome and were aimed at restricting extravagant expenses and regulating the dress of the time, which included limits on royal purple, the color of nobility. While all of the restrictions on flamboyant dress went to the wayside with the rise of Roman power, the restrictions on purple remained.
England resurrected these laws with the Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel of 1363. The Act detailed what kinds of dress people of each class were able to wear, which persisted until just before the Industrial Revolution. Notice the date. It’s instructive. Immediately following Black Death, average wages rose. As a result many in the lower classes had money to spare and began to adopt the style of dress of the elite. While we might now scoff at this, but in a world where everyone has the same skin color, the style of dress was the easiest way to discriminate.
Sin has long been about stepping out of line of the natural order. Think of the original sin. God gave a command to Adam, but Adam ate the apple anyway, thus damning humanity. As St. Augustine’s famously summarized, sin is “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.”
And what of these eternal laws? Where do they come from? Durkheim always thought that the God was just societal pressure translated into speech:
[Because authority] speaks to us in an imperative tone we certainly feel that it must come from some being superior to us; but we cannot see clearly who or what it is. This is why, in order to explain this mysterious voice that does not speak with a human accent, people imagine it to be connected with transcendent personalities above and beyond man, which then become the object of a cult. (Durkheim, 1973/1925, p. 89)
As he famously said, “God is society writ large.” God is society because God is this superior voice, which in turn is just society. Connecting these tenuous threads, even now the talk of sin must be understood as an aberration of the ordering of society as it is or as it wants to be.
Vox populi, vox Dei. Truly.
So when new taxes on sugar, trans fats, and salt are defined as sin taxes, it is body politic that we are really discussing. The order that we want to establish is being violated. Taxing the sin is just. Sin, at least in the world where I was raised, was followed by salvation, and there’s no better salvation than to give the church its indulgence.