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John Stuart Mill On “Sin Taxes” & Prohibition

The British philosopher John Stuart Mill was, besides being “particularly ill” on “half a pint of shandy,” a big proponent of the concept of free will, as the song says. In his book On Liberty, he also argues in favor free speech and, 150 years ago, was against minimum alcohol pricing as if it were today, which is why I bring it up.

In today’s UK newspaper, The Telegraph, British writer Brendan O’Neill argues convincingly against minimum pricing on alcohol in a piece entitled ‘Minimum alcohol pricing’ is a Sin Tax designed to punish poor people for the crime of getting hammered.

The British government has been discussing minimum alcohol pricing for a number of years as a way of stopping binge drinking, defined as uselessly there as here. O’Neill sees it rather differently, as “an assault on a certain kind of boozing, the kind indulged by the less well-off who prefer to drink lager or cider and let their hair down rather than quaff chardonnay and discuss Tunisia. The very term “binge drinking” — and bear in mind that, for a man, binge drinking means downing a paltry four pints in a night — is designed to conjure up images of the non-wine-drinking classes, who swig on bottles of beer with no sense of control or decorum; who scoff and down and binge rather than sip. Them, not Us.”

And that brings us back around to John Stuart Mill. I hadn’t seen these quotes before, but they’re brilliant. In On Liberty, he addressed this very issue by calling such price hikes a de facto “sin tax” because, then as now, it’s a regressive tax that punishes the poor for not behaving as some people might want them to.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”


“To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.”

As O’Neill concludes, that’s simply “prohibition through the backdoor, targeted at those whom the political classes consider to be reckless and self-destructive.” On this side of the pond, it’s all that moralizing plus anti-alcohol groups trying to convince us it’s about safety and “the children” and saying that raising the price will fix all our problems, and the economy to boot. Problem is, it never works. It’s just another attempt at Prohibition. Prohibition Lite, perhaps, but the aims are the same.

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