What Happens If Sin Taxes Don’t Bring In Enough Loot For Government? They Tax Healthy Living

Scott Shackford at the Reason blog notes the significance of this AP story: “As Cycling Grows, So Does The Bike Tax Temptation.”

Rather than beginning with the actual story—a politician proposing to tax bicycles in Chicago—the article spends three paragraphs softening readers up:

Early blasts of snow, ice and below-zero temperatures haven’t stopped a surprising number of Chicago cyclists from spinning through the slush this winter, thanks in part to a city so serious about accommodating them that it deploys mini-snow plows to clear bike lanes.

The snow-clearing operation is just the latest attention city leaders have lavished on cycling, from a growing web of bike lanes to the nation’s second largest shared network of grab-and-go bicycles stationed all over town. But it also spotlights questions that have been raised here, a city wrestling with deep financial problems, and across the country.

Who is paying for all this bicycle upkeep? And shouldn’t bicyclists be kicking in themselves?

What? Are bicyclists given special exemptions from all city taxes? No? Then the bicyclists are already kicking in themselves. They are also helping keep some traffic off the congested streets. The article even acknowledges this:

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has made bike lanes and bike programs a signature issue, believing it makes downtown an attractive place for bright young people and innovative companies. More bikes means less pollution, less traffic congestion, practically zero wear and tear on the city’s roads and a healthier population.

This doesn’t mean that I think the financial commitments to biking in the city are rational. The fact is that there is no way to make such a determination. Outside of a pricing system how can you tell what people truly want—not just what they say they want but what they are willing to pay for? You can’t.

But, as Shackford notes, the whole point of “sin” taxes is is that taxing an activity reduces that activity. Supposedly that reason government taxes alcohol or cigarettes is to deter people from drinking or smoking as much. But is that the real reason? Or do they just want revenue?

And why wouldn’t the logic of sin taxes apply to healthy activities? Of course it does. Taxing cyclists is going to discourage people from cycling. If cycling is a good thing then we know, by irresistible logic, that taxation is an evil.