The Benevolent Guardian (guest blog by Dick Richards)

Many of us probably consider the 10% tax on tanning bed services, which was passed as part of the national healthcare reform bill, to be a minor issue, and maybe it is. But it perfectly illustrates the different perspectives of left versus right.

For those on the left side of the political spectrum, this tax makes sense for these reasons: Studies have reportedly shown that those who use tanning beds have a higher incidence of skin cancer. So, by introducing this tax, the government will probably discourage a few people from using tanning beds or at least nudge people in the direction of using them less frequently. The net presumptive result will be fewer cases of skin cancer, and from a society-wide perspective that’s an all-around good thing. And there’s a bonus. Fewer cases of skin cancer will also result in a reduction of total healthcare costs, while the tax provides more money to the government to help pay for the healthcare of others. So, by increasing revenues and decreasing costs, this tax provides a society-wide net financial positive in addition to the society-wide health benefit – a “win-win” situation.

For those on the left, this is exactly what government is for – to serve as a benevolent guardian for society as a whole by providing for the safety and well-being of its members.

For those who lean to the right, this tax is a modified way of saying that we are not allowed to engage in that kind of behavior (i.e., using a tanning bed). In truth, the law does not say we cannot behave that way; it just says when we do behave that way, we have to pay our fellow citizens a small fee for doing so. When viewed from the right, that is exactly what is happening. We aren’t paying taxes to the government; we are paying a small fee to our fellow citizens. We don’t see the government as a separate entity built to watch over us; we see it as an extension of “we the people”. What is striking in the case of tanning beds is that we are paying this behavior fee for conduct that brings harm to no other citizen. We could understand being required to reimburse someone for encroaching on his or her rights. But there is no encroachment here.

To those on the right, this idea sits right next to absurd.

Sliding on down the slope, if the underlying reason for laws like this is to keep us safe and secure, isn’t it just as reasonable to institute a citizen behavior fee for hiking, biking, swimming, playing sports, etc.? After all, many people die or get injured when engaging in those behaviors, probably much more so than from tanning beds. Wouldn’t a fee on these behaviors, then, give us the same results as with the tanning bed fee?

In the end every law is, in fact, a citizen behavior law. So, where do we stop? Where do we stop with government intervention? Most of us don’t want the Left’s Benevolent Guardian model. We had that in the form of our parents when we were young. Now we are adults. As adults, we understand that a civilized society must operate by a set of rules. But do we need a rulebook that specifies every single little thing that we can or cannot do? As my attorney brother says, the attorney business mostly amounts to telling people what they can’t do. The more laws we write, the more we add to the “can’t do” list.

But new laws also add to the “must do” list. The 10% citizen behavior fee for using tanning beds also comes with a “must do” for the owner.  He or she now faces the additional administrative burden of keeping track of the tanning services he has provided and collecting the behavior fee so he can forward it to the government. But it isn’t as simple as adding up his sales and multiplying by 10%, because the fee doesn’t apply to all of his services, only to ultraviolet tanning services. So, he must track his ultraviolet tanning services separately. And then, multiple times per year, he has to fill out all of the proper paperwork and forward the fee to the government, hoping he has held his mouth the right way when filling out the form, lest he be audited.

Every law ever invented adds to one or both of the “can’t do” or “must do” lists. With each new law, we add just a little something to the national conformance burden. We place just a little extra weight on the back of someone, and ounce-by-ounce, we pull down the productivity of our nation. Look at the tax code. We now have entire industries – tax attorneys and tax filing companies – that exist solely for guiding us past the tax collector. Their work adds nothing to national productivity because nothing is produced except the amount to be remitted. Every economist in the world will tell you that productivity is the single biggest driver of the standard of living. The more productive we are – locally, nationally, or globally – the higher our standard of living. That is as certain as sunrise. Yet, every ounce of burden we add through new laws is a subtraction from productivity. Each new law, sometimes by the smallest of degrees and other times in large bounds, erodes our national productivity. So, the next time we are pondering the invention of a new law, let’s give due consideration to the downstream impact.

I say thanks, but no thanks, to tanning bed fees and The Benevolent Guardian.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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1 Response to The Benevolent Guardian (guest blog by Dick Richards)

  1. Dick Richards says:

    Awesome post!


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