Writing in The Times, Tim Montgomerie has penned a staunch defence of the sugar tax – or at least, the principle behind it – from what he calls “small-state fundamentalists”.
These are people who, by his own description, believe that “the state to be small and humble about intervening in the boardroom, bedroom and kitchen”. In other words, people like me.
For the purposes of this argument, let’s set aside the de-legitimising hyperbole of “fundamentalists”. Let us ignore too the fiercely contested evidence that such taxes have the desired effect and the counter-claims about their deeply regressive impact on poor people.
What I want to examine is Montgomerie’s suggestion that such measures are, in fact, “small state”.
His argument runs thus: prohibition, or gradations thereof, reduce the harmful impact of a thing (assume, for the moment, that this is actually true). Therefore, you need to spend less taxpayers’ money on the consequences, hire fewer nurses, and so on. Lo, the state is shrunken.
As a sincere appeal to “libertarians” – as all who oppose sugar taxes must surely be (by his reasoning) – it misses the point completely.
To classical liberals and those who share at least some of their instincts, shrinking the state is not the ultimate point. The ultimate point is freeing people to make their own decisions, govern their own lives, captain their own souls.
The size of the state, in material terms, is a fairly good indicator of the extent to which it interferes in the lives of its citizens. But it is not the only measure.
Tobacco duty, for example, raises funds – far more, in fact, than smoking-related illnesses cost the state. Yet it is nonetheless a choice-restricting policy.
Not necessarily because it reduces tobacco consumption, which is very price inelastic, but because of the opportunity cost of the additional funds the Government takes which the citizen might otherwise have spent pursuing their own interests and pleasures – in short, enhancing their life as they choose.
A free market in tobacco may require the hiring of more nurses and the purchase of more chemo machines, but that remains the more liberal choice – and thus the preference of liberals. We believe that a moral welfare state is a enabling, not prohibitive. A safety net, and not a straightjacket. Even if that is more expensive, and leaves the state ‘bigger’ in raw, material terms.
What, then, might a true “small-state fundamentalist” look like? Much like a man who would cut the material state at all costs, and would consign the people to tighter bonds than ever on the proviso that they were more cost-effective.
It would take just such a fundamentalist, in fact, to find small-government merit in the sugar tax.
Mr Hill has written a follow up piece for CapX on this subject, arguing that a Sugar Levy moves the welfare state from a safety net to a straightjacket
Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @