The spectre of sin taxes

With the Dublin government about to unleash a wildly unpopular budget on the population, it’s worth asking why we let governments get away with interfering six taxes – and just how drinking water and driving cars became sins.We all know that next week’s budget is going to be painful. We know this because the government keep telling us so.

Among the various measures the government will implement in the hope of plugging the gaping hole in the public finances will be the usual round of increases in consumption taxes. Tobacco and alcohol will undoubtedly see rises in duty. Smoking cigarettes, of course, has long been considered only a step above spousal abuse in moral terms but today’s political obsession with ‘binge drinking’ means drink will get a look in too. The fact that the government thinks it can rake-in €140m in revenue is purely coincidental, you understand.

Taxing people as a method of punishing their behavior is about to get a lot bigger thanks to the introduction of a ‘carbon levy‘ and, though unrelated to the budget, it’s a sure bet that Dublin City Council has its beady little bureaucratic eyes on a London-inspired congestion charge, also to be sold to the electorate on green grounds.

For the record, when the Greens first mooted carbon taxes they claimed they would be ‘revenue neutral’. Whoops sorry Father! What we meant by ‘revenue neutral’ was that it would coin about €4-500m a year.

For the more socialist-inclined among Slugger’s readership, it’s worth pointing out that consumption taxes are regressive and disproportionately hurt the poor. Green supporters claim that the recently introduced motor tax regime “rewards drivers who buy greener, less-polluting cars”. What it actually does is punish people don’t. It’s true that this means pricey SUVs are more expensive to drive, but it also means a typical family car is too. Hybrids, which are tax exempt, are not a common site outside the leafy suburbs of south Dublin. Making cars more expensive literally hampers working class mobility. It’s a sad fact that when we used to talk about barriers to mobility we were talking about social mobility but today we literally mean moving about.

Vat is already out of control in the Republic and is a major contributing factor in revenue lost to the North (along with good, old-fashioned price gouging) but the behaviour taxes are a particularly insidious form of social control that amount to an attack on the working class. The wealthy can afford to keep their cars on the road, drink bottled water and smoke as much as they please. Greens, who despite all the evidence to the contrary, pose as a friend of the poor will respond that the taxes target the wealthy, buzzing around in their BMWs. This is arrant nonsense.

Remember, the Republic of Ireland already hammers poorer people with its bin charges and despite the fact that Ireland is one of the wettest countries in Europe, we’re soon going to be hit with water charges too. Despite the ridiculous propaganda pumped out by the likes of Dublin City Council, there is no water shortage in Ireland. At all. What there is, is an il-maintained and ageing infrastructure in dire need of capital investment. The Green Party, a minority partner in government, opposes measures including piping water from the Shannon to Dublin, preferring instead to charge people for the stuff. Local government, meanwhile, is clamouring for any income it can get its grubby mits on, having been chronically underfunded since residential rates were done away with in a populist move. Paying for water and bin collection amounts to double taxation – after all, when the government got rid of rates it paid for local services through direct taxation. Central government failing to properly fund local authorities is no reason to start gouging the public.

No-one is saying that the budget should include massive tax rebates and a box of chocolates for everyone in the audience. It’s just that the government’s plan to push the poor around is being widely ignored.

Being ripped-off by private enterprise is already said to be our patriotic duty. Now we can add being shafted by the government to the list of things done for our country.

Jason Walsh is a journalist an the editor of forth