After news of the baffling decision by the New York grand jury not to indict a police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, I sent out a (slightly) hyperbolic tweet that wondered why Americans would want to entrust their free speech and health care to an institution that will kill you over failure to pay a cigarette tax.
If they can kill you over a cigarette tax, why would you trust them to run the internet, regulate your speech and choose your health care?
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) December 4, 2014
Since then, I’ve seen numerous tweets discounting this argument as preposterous. It’s something akin to blaming jaywalking for the death of Michael Brown, we’re told. Rand Paul touched on the issue in an interview on msnbc yesterday and was, predictably, ridiculed for it by liberals – because mentioning the circumstances of a violent act is preposterous, apparently.
Though it certainly isn’t close to being the most important lesson of this inexplicable case, it’s not something that should be dismissed so flippantly.
Garner wasn’t targeted for death because he was avoiding taxes, but nonetheless, prohibitive cigarette taxes unnecessarily create situations that make events like this possible. We frame violent acts and unintended consequences in this way all the time. When we discuss how illegal immigrant women can be the helpless victims of domestic violence, we also blame unreasonable laws for creating the situation. When we talk about the Drug War and millions of non-violent criminals it creates and the violent tactics of the DEA and other agencies, we have little problem blaming underlying policy. With good reason.
Some pundits have similarly blamed broken-windows policing for Garner’s death. Those policies, whether they work or not, at aimed at protecting property and people. In the case of Garner, police were enforcing a law that has nothing to with violence. Not in the short or long term. It exists to shield people from their completely lawful habit. High cigarette taxes were cooked up, in most part, to artificially inflate the price of product politicians and voters dislike so that others would not be able to afford it. For their own good.
New York has by far the highest cigarette taxes – over 5 bucks a pack. As it always does, this kind of policy has triggered black market trade. In March, Governor Cuomo announced the formation of the “Cigarette Strike Force” to crack down on illegal tobacco trafficking. A strike force. Sounds pretty violent. As Robert Tracinski has pointed out, the Garner case should remind us that government is force and more government has predictable returns. And if you believe cops are racist and unduly violent in general, every time you pass some silly law all you do is give them more opportunity.
When it comes to taxes, there is all kinds of opportunity. Last month, a man was arrested in Staten Island with 500,000 untaxed cigarettes in his van. (Don’t worry, New York State resells most of the cigarettes for revenue.) The more profitable circumventing taxes becomes the more dangerous this mini-prohibition will be.
Garner was selling singles, incidentally. Does anyone believe that isn’t a waste of time for police and prosecutors? Even if your position is that government has an important role in deciding what you should ingest, cigarette smoking has been dropping for decades around the country. It was dropping before sin taxes. It’s dropping in places there are no sin taxes. Other than inconveniencing poor people, sin taxes offer us nothing. Well, maybe a little tax revenue. A bit of social engineering. And sometimes a death.