Dynamic preferences and the behavioral case against sin taxes

Abstract

Traditionally, economists and tax theorists justify taxation by means of externalities. In recent years, both scholars and policymakers have begun advocating ‘sin taxes’ on goods whose consumption causes ‘internalities’: unaccounted-for costs that a person imposes on herself, not on others. In this paper, we argue that sin taxes rest on a static model of individual choice. They retain neoclassical rationality—with its endorsement of stable and context-independent preferences—as a normative benchmark for good, i.e., welfare-increasing choice. We contrast this model with a more dynamic understanding of choice in which preferences are context-dependent, evolving, and open to individual processes of experimentation. Such a dynamic understanding of choice is backed by recent findings in psychology and behavioral economics and is integral to the political economy of John Stuart Mill. Contributing to the most recent literature in behavioral welfare economics, we argue that the reality of dynamic and evolving preferences animates a contractarian perspective on public policy which, in turn, provides strong arguments against the sin-tax agenda and supports preference-neutral tax rules.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Our argument is limited to individuals with a general capacity for self-governance. Our analysis does not apply to children and individuals who are suicidal or suffer from dementia or pathological personality disorders. This constraint does not render our critique of the sin tax agenda any less relevant since such cases are generally not dealt with through the tax code but via guardianship or clinical treatment.

  2. 2.

    Proponents of rational time preferences argue that choice inconsistencies (e.g., planning for a greater, future reward but then choosing a smaller, immediate reward at the time of action) would prevent individuals from maximizing lifetime utility.

  3. 3.

    Due to information constraints, theorists might propose a “second best” solution, i.e., a uniform sin tax that applies one increased rate to all taxpayers when they consume “sinful” goods. Our argument in this paper also applies to uniform sin taxes, see note 13 below.

  4. 4.

    The beta-delta function is a mathematically convenient simplification of the more general hyperbolic discounting function where events \(t\) periods away are discounted with factor \({\left(1 + \alpha t\right)}^{-\gamma /\alpha }\), with \(\gamma ,\alpha >0.\) While the beta-delta function assumes a declining discount rate between this period and the next, but a constant rate thereafter, the general hyperbolic function results in discount rates that decline gradually as the discounted event is moved further into the future. For a critical overview of various discounting models in economics, see Frederick et al. (2002).

  5. 5.

    While Congleton (2018) also emphasizes the relative stability of individual choice patterns, his model of “homo constitutionalus” entails many elements that we highlighted in this section; his model conceptualizes individual choice as rule-bound, multi-layered, dynamic and determined by various contextual elements.

  6. 6.

    In this section, we discuss the normative challenge of the quasi-hyperbolic model; however, our argument also applies to the general functional form (see note 4). In the latter case, the normative challenge of choosing the “right” discount rate would be amplified since one does not only have to take sides between two rates (short- and long-term) but pick among a vast array of different rates. Here, one would have to define a threshold for discount rates that represent short- and long-term preferences respectively. This just heightens the normative conundrum (cf. Read, 2006).

  7. 7.

    Expressive preferences are preferences that express wishful thinking before the moment of choice that neglect or downplay potential negative consequences of choice. Hindsight bias and experienced opportunity costs capture distorted evaluations after the moment of choice. In the case of the hindsight bias, an individual constructs an ex post narrative that justifies the choice as the only viable option. Experienced opportunity costs capture the feeling of dissatisfaction about all the forgone alternatives after a choice has been made.

  8. 8.

    Interestingly, proponents of a long-term perspective on individual welfare (i.e., for the view that the long-run discount rate is the correct one) admit that the data backing their view is often very sketchy. Le Grand and New (2015, 96) point out that “the empirical evidence from trials or survey research is not so readily available. Indeed, a comprehensive review of time discounting and preference, which outlines a range of anomalies from the classical model, acknowledges that these anomalies may not represent individuals making “mistakes” but just be the result of descriptively inaccurate modeling.”

  9. 9.

    Like Mill, many other leading 19th century intellectuals (such as Henri Bergson or William James) considered decision-making to be an open-ended process of character formation. Exploring, learning, being contradictory, and ambivalence were all seen as part of this open-ended process of character formation (Dold and Rizzo, forthoming). An earlier proponent of this view was David Hume who understood happiness to consist in the process of actively developing and pursuing one’s preferences, not simply in the state of satisfying one’s given preferences (Matson, 2021).

  10. 10.

    Self-regulation “consists of a wide range of cognitive and motivational operations, such as acting quickly to take opportunities, ignoring distractions, acting flexibly in response to situations, overcoming obstacles, and managing conflicts between goals” (Fitzsimons and Bargh, 2004, 151-2).

  11. 11.

    Sugden is building his contractarianism on Buchanan (1986, 240): “If politics is to be interpreted in any justificatory or legitimizing sense without the introduction of supra-individual value norms, it must be modelled as a process within which individuals, with separate and potentially different interests and values, interact for the purpose of securing individually valued benefits of cooperative effort. If this presupposition about the nature of politics is accepted, the ultimate model of politics is contractarian.” While Sugden writes within Buchanan’s framework, he does not employ the ‘veil of uncertainty’ metaphor as the basis for normative analysis.

  12. 12.

    While our analysis in this section is largely theoretical and it applies to sin tax policies, there is empirical evidence that supports our argument. Many real-world individuals are reluctant to subscribe to self-constraining strategies. Sugden (2018, 154) argues convincingly that the volume of traffic on websites that offer implementation mechanisms of self-constraining strategies (such as stickK.com) is too low to count as evidence that preferences for self-constraint are widespread. In other areas, such as retirement savings, individuals reveal a relative low appetite for hard self-restrictions. Sugden’s explanation of low saving rates is in line with the thrust of our argument: “it is worth asking whether part of the explanation for low rates of household saving is that people are conscious of the huge economic, political, and personal uncertainties involved in planning for a retirement that may be several decades away.” (ibid., 155).

  13. 13.

    These two characteristics challenge both the individualized sin tax that calibrates the rate for specific goods for different taxpayers and the uniform sin tax, that applies a specific tax rate to all taxpayers when they consume a specific good. In both cases, sin taxes result in different rates on different goods since higher taxes are levied on those goods that are considered “sinful.” Hence, we argue below that sin taxes diminish preference experimentation by disincentivizing specific consumption styles.

  14. 14.

    This is in line with Buchanan’s argument put forth in Natural and Artifactual Man (Buchanan, 1979). Buchanan argues that once an individual acknowledges his own becoming, he “has a clear interest in seeing that the choice set, the set of alternative imagined futures, remains as open as is naturally possible, and, if constrained, that the constraints be also of his own choosing. The deliberate closing off of future options by the introduction of apparently irrelevant constraints, externally imposed, must damage the individual who knows that he must choose among uncertain prospects continually through time.” (1979, 258-9).

  15. 15.

    The level of this neutral tax rule and details of its practical implementation (e.g., sales tax vs. value-added tax) would be the result of the actual bargain of the respective community and cannot be solved a priori. Also, under a contractarian framework, the relative (dis)advantage of consumption taxes compared to other types of taxation (such as taxes on income, wealth, or property) must to be discussed by the self-governing populace. Our point is that preference uncertainty and experimentation will likely play important roles in these discussions.

  16. 16.

    This example illustrates that information about choice consequences is indeed important for effective processes of preference experimentation. However, as this example shows, the informational value of sin taxes is limited because they typically remain silent about the consequences of substitute goods. We would argue that the process of individual experimentation is a crucial source of information generation because through trial-and-error individuals learn first-hand what it means to hold certain preferences. Admittedly, this experiential approach has its limits in the context of highly addictive drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

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Delmotte, C., Dold, M. Dynamic preferences and the behavioral case against sin taxes. Const Polit Econ (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-021-09328-8

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Keywords

  • Sin Taxes
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Contractarianism
  • Dynamic Preferences
  • John Stuart Mill
  • Self-Governance

JEL Classifications

  • D63
  • D91
  • H20
  • I31