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Should Catholics support a ‘ruthless’ sin tax on demon rum?

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A pastoral letter recently read in Catholic pulpits across Poland highlights the real and pressing problem of alcoholism. In it, the bishop called for the complete suppression of alcohol advertising and for a significant price increase to reduce consumption. But there are strong reasons to believe its proposed policies could make matters worse, writes Marcin Rzegocki, who lives in Poland, in his most recent essay for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.

“The great responsibility of the state is not only to make wise and precise law but also effective and ruthless enforcement,” wrote Bishop Tadeusz Bronakowski. “You must completely ban the advertising of alcohol and limit its physical and economic availability.”

Both alcoholism and the call for a sin tax blanket Europe. A recent report from United European Gastroenterology warns that European drinking patterns elevate their risk for colorectal and esophageal cancer. It has sparked additional calls for a heavier tariff on its consumers.

“But is a ‘sin tax’ the right answer?” asks Rzegocki in his new essay.

He carefully traces the extent of the problem alcoholism presents to Europe, and Poland, before highlighting the unintended consequences of government intervention. This includes the smuggling of low-quality alcohol by nefarious elements in other parts of the Schengen Area – something all-too-familiar to his readers on the U.S. side of the transatlantic sphere.

Aside from this and the other practical issues that he expertly describes, Rzegocki notes that sin taxes pose a moral conundrum:

This gives rise to the paradox that the state profits from a higher consumption of alcohol. In 2014, the excise tax on alcohol added  10 billion zlotys ($2.8 billion U.S.) to the Polish budget, not including the income from the VAT tax on alcohol sales. It becomes obvious that the government’s budget relies on the taxation of these products. Why would it then be interested in diminishing sales? Has the state ever been interested in reducing its own budget?

As a true pastor of his people, though, Bishop Bronakowski does not leave the solution to the mechanisms of the State. His pastoral letter (which is linked here) begins with the responsibilities of families and churches. Rzegocki outlines the matchless help that can be provided by individuals, family members, church pastors, and private organizations (such as the American invention, Alcoholics Anonymous, which has since spread to Europe). Rzegocki’s essay recalls the second and third of AA’s 12 steps, calling on addicts to seek the assistance of a Higher Power:

Jesus said that, when it comes to certain kinds of evils, they are “not cast out but by prayer and fasting” (St. Matthew 17:18-21, Douay-Rheims). These spiritual weapons, in the hands of loving families and strong intermediary institutions, will doubtlessly prove more powerful than relying on state limitations, monopoly enterprises, and economic interventionism.

You can read his full essay here.

For a fuller exposition of the issue, please see Fr. Robert A. Sirico’s The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations.

(Photo credit: Jak Sie Masz. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

The Sin Tax

The Sin Tax

Rev. Robert Sirico discusses how a sin tax promotes the behavior in question and several ways a sin tax is harmful to all involved.

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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