Tax it to death!

Porn Tax Considered As Solution To Budget Shortfall
:

California state lawmakers are considering an unusual idea to solve the state’s huge budget shortfall: Tax pornography.

The idea was proposed by a state assemblyman, and would impose a 25 percent tax on the production and sales of pornographic videos — the vast majority of which are made in southern California.

It is unknown, however, how seriously lawmakers will take the idea or how the porn business would deal with the new tax. It is likely, though, that porm-makers would simply pass the cost along to consumers by making pornographic materials more expensive.

However, many economists believe that pornography is an industry with inelastic demand — meaning market conditions typically don’t affect consumers’ desire for the product. In other words, it is believed that most porn consumers would continue to buy regardless of how much it cost.

Would conservatives support THIS tax? Is there a problem with so-called “vice taxes”–such as taxes on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and maybe now this–in which the government, in effect, profits from citizens’ moral weakness? Or is taxing something like porn a good way to limit it?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Chris H.

    Sounds like a “two kingdoms” issue to me. As much as I’d like to see porn go away, it’s not the place of the government, any government, to enforce morality on the citizenry.

  • Chris H.

    Sounds like a “two kingdoms” issue to me. As much as I’d like to see porn go away, it’s not the place of the government, any government, to enforce morality on the citizenry.

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    I would prefer porn going away through decreased demand, caused by the proper preaching of Law and Gospel.

    Hasn’t the line between porn and art been blurry at times? Someone would have to make a decision as to whether a company was porn (and evading tax) or just art.

    Taxing predilections and addictions doesn’t reduce a particular item’s usage as much as taxing something that has alternatives. The cigarette industry is still selling cigarettes, even in New York. Vice taxes are more of a money grab than a social improvement.

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    I would prefer porn going away through decreased demand, caused by the proper preaching of Law and Gospel.

    Hasn’t the line between porn and art been blurry at times? Someone would have to make a decision as to whether a company was porn (and evading tax) or just art.

    Taxing predilections and addictions doesn’t reduce a particular item’s usage as much as taxing something that has alternatives. The cigarette industry is still selling cigarettes, even in New York. Vice taxes are more of a money grab than a social improvement.

  • Joe

    “it’s not the place of the government, any government, to enforce morality on the citizenry.”

    All laws force morality on the people – it is just a matter of whose morality is enforced.

  • Joe

    “it’s not the place of the government, any government, to enforce morality on the citizenry.”

    All laws force morality on the people – it is just a matter of whose morality is enforced.

  • Manxman

    Chris H. – From a Biblical standpoint it is EXACTLY the job of the government to enforce “morality” on the citizenry. How can you possibly establish justice without using power to enforce some set of values? The answer is – you can’t. Keep in mind, too, that government forces “morality” on its citizenry by what it ALLOWS as much as with what it forbids.

    Instead of seeing this as an issue of where government profits from taxing the vices of its citizens, perhaps it could also be viewed as making the people who engage in this behavior pick up some of the social costs for the damage they inflict on other people and our society.

  • Manxman

    Chris H. – From a Biblical standpoint it is EXACTLY the job of the government to enforce “morality” on the citizenry. How can you possibly establish justice without using power to enforce some set of values? The answer is – you can’t. Keep in mind, too, that government forces “morality” on its citizenry by what it ALLOWS as much as with what it forbids.

    Instead of seeing this as an issue of where government profits from taxing the vices of its citizens, perhaps it could also be viewed as making the people who engage in this behavior pick up some of the social costs for the damage they inflict on other people and our society.

  • Trey

    It IS actually the government’s place to enforce morality otherwise there would be chaos. However, it is NOT the government’s place to rule in spiritual matters or to force people to believe in a religion. The government is to punish evil. Sexual immorality falls under the natural law and not an article of faith. We are all bound to the natural law even if we want to deny it.

  • Trey

    It IS actually the government’s place to enforce morality otherwise there would be chaos. However, it is NOT the government’s place to rule in spiritual matters or to force people to believe in a religion. The government is to punish evil. Sexual immorality falls under the natural law and not an article of faith. We are all bound to the natural law even if we want to deny it.

  • Bror Erickson

    The problem with taxing a vice more than something else is that it tends to make the government more dependent and complicit in it. Taxing porn won’t make it go away, it will just allow the state to profit from it, as much as the pornographers profit from it.
    There is a certain part of me that thinks I am an extra good citizen when I indulge in my heavily taxed vices. I mean if it wasn’t for me and others like me, the state wouldn’t be able to fund many of its programs.

  • Bror Erickson

    The problem with taxing a vice more than something else is that it tends to make the government more dependent and complicit in it. Taxing porn won’t make it go away, it will just allow the state to profit from it, as much as the pornographers profit from it.
    There is a certain part of me that thinks I am an extra good citizen when I indulge in my heavily taxed vices. I mean if it wasn’t for me and others like me, the state wouldn’t be able to fund many of its programs.

  • Bror Erickson

    I would not go so far as to say the government shouldn’t be forcing morality on people at some level. The problem is we associate the word morality these days almost exclusively with sexual morality. We don’t think of people skipping church on Sunday as being immoral. We don’t think of the crimes of murder, stealing, or perjury as being immoral. One who says that it isn’t the governments job to enforce morality, especially in this context, would be talking almost exclusively of sexual mores. And he may be more or less right. Of course most states have laws against prostitution, which make almost no sense considering that fornication, and adultery are no longer prosecuted. I don’t see why a woman who goes home with a man from the bar is innocent under the law, so long as she doesn’t charge the man five dollars for her time.
    Some morals are easier than others to enforce, and more necessary. But even enforcing those laws will not make a person moral by Biblical standards, where one is guilty of murder for hating his brother. Some morals would be absolutely impossible to enforce. A person breaking the first commandment is an immoral person. But how would you know if that man had a different God, than the God who gave us the commandment? And as long as the man puts his trash out on the corner Wednesday morning, what is it to you?

  • Bror Erickson

    I would not go so far as to say the government shouldn’t be forcing morality on people at some level. The problem is we associate the word morality these days almost exclusively with sexual morality. We don’t think of people skipping church on Sunday as being immoral. We don’t think of the crimes of murder, stealing, or perjury as being immoral. One who says that it isn’t the governments job to enforce morality, especially in this context, would be talking almost exclusively of sexual mores. And he may be more or less right. Of course most states have laws against prostitution, which make almost no sense considering that fornication, and adultery are no longer prosecuted. I don’t see why a woman who goes home with a man from the bar is innocent under the law, so long as she doesn’t charge the man five dollars for her time.
    Some morals are easier than others to enforce, and more necessary. But even enforcing those laws will not make a person moral by Biblical standards, where one is guilty of murder for hating his brother. Some morals would be absolutely impossible to enforce. A person breaking the first commandment is an immoral person. But how would you know if that man had a different God, than the God who gave us the commandment? And as long as the man puts his trash out on the corner Wednesday morning, what is it to you?

  • Manxman

    Bror Erickson,

    You can engage in this all sophistry where you turn everything into grey areas and relative values, but the bottom line is this – God has the world rigged such that when people sin, whether they are “religious” or not, horrible consequences always result. God does not expect government to sit idly by while evildoers destroy other peoples’ lives and turn the social order into chaos. He knows that gov’t may not be able to do its job perfectly, but He expects those who are in power to at least try to make proper value judgements and establish a just, stable society. Man does not sin in a vacuum. When he puts his “trash” out on the corner, both physical trash and moral trash, it eventually affects people around him. And, if enough people are turned loose by government to degrade themselves and the culture, that society will eventually come under God’s judgement and collapse.

  • Manxman

    Bror Erickson,

    You can engage in this all sophistry where you turn everything into grey areas and relative values, but the bottom line is this – God has the world rigged such that when people sin, whether they are “religious” or not, horrible consequences always result. God does not expect government to sit idly by while evildoers destroy other peoples’ lives and turn the social order into chaos. He knows that gov’t may not be able to do its job perfectly, but He expects those who are in power to at least try to make proper value judgements and establish a just, stable society. Man does not sin in a vacuum. When he puts his “trash” out on the corner, both physical trash and moral trash, it eventually affects people around him. And, if enough people are turned loose by government to degrade themselves and the culture, that society will eventually come under God’s judgement and collapse.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Well said that every law is at one level a moral law. That’s exactly why a “sin tax” on porn might be a bad idea; you tax legitimate businesses, after all. Also, a porn tax develops government dependency on the success of the porn business.

    Perverse incentives abound here, and yes, the pun is intended and blame therefor gratefully accepted.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Well said that every law is at one level a moral law. That’s exactly why a “sin tax” on porn might be a bad idea; you tax legitimate businesses, after all. Also, a porn tax develops government dependency on the success of the porn business.

    Perverse incentives abound here, and yes, the pun is intended and blame therefor gratefully accepted.

  • S. Bauer

    Whew, Bror. I did not expect you to be accused of sophistry before me :-).

    Let’s check with Jeremiah:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them [that's quite a charge], and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart. Go ahead and read the rest of Jeremiah 12. God’s answer doesn’t include the rulers of Judah as part of the solution. It’s more along the lines of “just wait patiently for my judgment.” Habbakuk gets the same answer.

  • S. Bauer

    Whew, Bror. I did not expect you to be accused of sophistry before me :-).

    Let’s check with Jeremiah:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them [that's quite a charge], and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart. Go ahead and read the rest of Jeremiah 12. God’s answer doesn’t include the rulers of Judah as part of the solution. It’s more along the lines of “just wait patiently for my judgment.” Habbakuk gets the same answer.

  • Bror Erickson

    Manxman,
    You write:
    “You can engage in this all sophistry where you turn everything into grey areas and relative values,”
    I don’t think I turned anything into a grey area, or made any of the values relative. But if you want to resurrect the inquisition to make sure everyone around you believes in God and the right God at that, or is punished properly for the infraction, then I will vote down your bill. Some aspects of morality have to be left to God to punish, or forgive in his own time. Personally, I hope he forgives the pornographers. I don’t see why he shouldn’t He forgave me.

  • Bror Erickson

    Manxman,
    You write:
    “You can engage in this all sophistry where you turn everything into grey areas and relative values,”
    I don’t think I turned anything into a grey area, or made any of the values relative. But if you want to resurrect the inquisition to make sure everyone around you believes in God and the right God at that, or is punished properly for the infraction, then I will vote down your bill. Some aspects of morality have to be left to God to punish, or forgive in his own time. Personally, I hope he forgives the pornographers. I don’t see why he shouldn’t He forgave me.

  • kerner

    30 years ago, my criminal law professor, who was a Christian, argued to us that all criminal law was moral law, because the nature of all criminal prosecutions were titled either “People vs. XXXX” or “State vs. XXXX”, which meant that the entire community had concluded that certain acts ought not be committed, and that the community had decided to punish those acts even though most of the community was not directly harmed. We as a society punish theft, for example, not because the thief stole from each of us, but because theft is intrinsicly wrong and all of society is harmed if it goes unpunished. Civil law could be distinguished because only the individual directly harmed could sue the person who harmed him. Although even civil law still is based on a moral judgment that certain acts are in some sense “wrong” and therefore the wrongdoer is compelled to pay for the damage he causes to the plaintiff.

    That having been said, there is also the question of human freedom. There are limits to the ability of the government to A.) correctly discern what is right and wrong, and B.) force people to make the morally right decisions. Prostitution, for example, has always been available, in every society, whether legally tolerated or not. At least 2 states I know of (Nevada and Rhode Island) are pretty open in their toleration of prostitution, while the rest of this country (correctly I believe) punishes it. I really don’t see much moral difference between having sex with a stranger for money he pays you and having sex with a casual acquaintence for money a movie production company pays you. Yet one is punished and the other is not.

    Drunkenness is a sin, and some would say that drinking alcohol at all is a sin. But national prohibition flopped, yet there remain “dry” counties.

    So what are the Christian standards for when the Government should punish immorality and when it should let individuals make their own mistakes? Libertarians would claim that people should be punished for harming each other, but not from hurting themselves. Others find harm to society as a whole in acts that the people involved consented to and want to punish those acts. Is something mundane like the cost of enforcement a legitimate factor?

    Deciding when government ought to get involved in morality isn’t sophistry. These are policy decisions every society has to make. Some societies have recently decided that sexual sin is so offensive (and that male human nature is is so provoked toward sexual sin by what men see) that they have punished women for appearing in public unless they are covered with cloth head to toe. I think that’s going too far. So what is the Christian, reasonable and prudent place(s) to draw the line?

  • kerner

    30 years ago, my criminal law professor, who was a Christian, argued to us that all criminal law was moral law, because the nature of all criminal prosecutions were titled either “People vs. XXXX” or “State vs. XXXX”, which meant that the entire community had concluded that certain acts ought not be committed, and that the community had decided to punish those acts even though most of the community was not directly harmed. We as a society punish theft, for example, not because the thief stole from each of us, but because theft is intrinsicly wrong and all of society is harmed if it goes unpunished. Civil law could be distinguished because only the individual directly harmed could sue the person who harmed him. Although even civil law still is based on a moral judgment that certain acts are in some sense “wrong” and therefore the wrongdoer is compelled to pay for the damage he causes to the plaintiff.

    That having been said, there is also the question of human freedom. There are limits to the ability of the government to A.) correctly discern what is right and wrong, and B.) force people to make the morally right decisions. Prostitution, for example, has always been available, in every society, whether legally tolerated or not. At least 2 states I know of (Nevada and Rhode Island) are pretty open in their toleration of prostitution, while the rest of this country (correctly I believe) punishes it. I really don’t see much moral difference between having sex with a stranger for money he pays you and having sex with a casual acquaintence for money a movie production company pays you. Yet one is punished and the other is not.

    Drunkenness is a sin, and some would say that drinking alcohol at all is a sin. But national prohibition flopped, yet there remain “dry” counties.

    So what are the Christian standards for when the Government should punish immorality and when it should let individuals make their own mistakes? Libertarians would claim that people should be punished for harming each other, but not from hurting themselves. Others find harm to society as a whole in acts that the people involved consented to and want to punish those acts. Is something mundane like the cost of enforcement a legitimate factor?

    Deciding when government ought to get involved in morality isn’t sophistry. These are policy decisions every society has to make. Some societies have recently decided that sexual sin is so offensive (and that male human nature is is so provoked toward sexual sin by what men see) that they have punished women for appearing in public unless they are covered with cloth head to toe. I think that’s going too far. So what is the Christian, reasonable and prudent place(s) to draw the line?

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Regarding how to curb pornography. I also agree that a tax of it (which is probably already in place, no?) is not the right way to go and that it does legitimize the industry in our society. I also don’t think banning it or criminalizing the “consumer” is the right way to go either, because of my healthy respect of the unperfectibility of man and his natural lusts. Instead of punishing the consumer sinners, what could be a proper role of government in going after and punishing the producer sinners of pornography. Could our hedonistic society tolerate such a curb? I doubt that, though I pray for it. And yes, also for forgiveness for the pornographer – but only the law will drive them to seeing their need, right?

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Regarding how to curb pornography. I also agree that a tax of it (which is probably already in place, no?) is not the right way to go and that it does legitimize the industry in our society. I also don’t think banning it or criminalizing the “consumer” is the right way to go either, because of my healthy respect of the unperfectibility of man and his natural lusts. Instead of punishing the consumer sinners, what could be a proper role of government in going after and punishing the producer sinners of pornography. Could our hedonistic society tolerate such a curb? I doubt that, though I pray for it. And yes, also for forgiveness for the pornographer – but only the law will drive them to seeing their need, right?

  • kerner

    if you criminally punish the producers only, they will simply relocate to some other country, and nothing else will change.

  • kerner

    if you criminally punish the producers only, they will simply relocate to some other country, and nothing else will change.

  • Richard Lewer

    Ala Al Capone, most porn companies could probably be pout out of business if their income tax statements were thoroughly investigated.

    However, this would not solve the interesting philosophical discussion.

  • Richard Lewer

    Ala Al Capone, most porn companies could probably be pout out of business if their income tax statements were thoroughly investigated.

    However, this would not solve the interesting philosophical discussion.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Perhaps I should have said, “…producer and distributor sinners…” in post 13 above.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Perhaps I should have said, “…producer and distributor sinners…” in post 13 above.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com econ grad

    Kerner in #12 raises the question:
    “Deciding when government ought to get involved in morality isn’t sophistry. These are policy decisions every society has to make… So what is the Christian, reasonable and prudent place(s) to draw the line?”

    If the enforcement of a law causes a greater evil that’s probably a good reason not to have that law (even if it punishes immorality). Some vice laws require a government so powerful as to bring many evils along with it.

    We see a glimpse of that balancing act in the procedures present in Hebrew law.

  • http://boundedirrationality.blogspot.com econ grad

    Kerner in #12 raises the question:
    “Deciding when government ought to get involved in morality isn’t sophistry. These are policy decisions every society has to make… So what is the Christian, reasonable and prudent place(s) to draw the line?”

    If the enforcement of a law causes a greater evil that’s probably a good reason not to have that law (even if it punishes immorality). Some vice laws require a government so powerful as to bring many evils along with it.

    We see a glimpse of that balancing act in the procedures present in Hebrew law.

  • Trey

    In the above posts, some have confused and mixed the issue of governments role in mores and spirituality. The government is to punish public immorality those things which by the natural law are sinful. This has nothing to do with God at all. In the secular sphere, it is as if God does not exist. The natural law irrespective of one’s belief or disbelief in God is innate and known.

    A good question was raised, if a sin is done in private should the government punish it? I would say no as long as that sin was not published in the public and it had no effect on the public. Your thoughts?

  • Trey

    In the above posts, some have confused and mixed the issue of governments role in mores and spirituality. The government is to punish public immorality those things which by the natural law are sinful. This has nothing to do with God at all. In the secular sphere, it is as if God does not exist. The natural law irrespective of one’s belief or disbelief in God is innate and known.

    A good question was raised, if a sin is done in private should the government punish it? I would say no as long as that sin was not published in the public and it had no effect on the public. Your thoughts?

  • Bror Erickson

    I don’t think public or private is the issue. Most laws are broken in private.
    In the secular realm a government needs more reason for declaring something a crime, than that it is immoral. If it was going to go around locking people up for being immoral they would have to lock everyone up. But a society can tolerate somethings, and not others. The government is to keep the peace. This is why tings like murder, and theft are prosecuted. But the immoral womanizer walks free. The question does this infraction of natural law, infringe on the safety and welfare of anyone else? Is probably a good rule of thumb.

  • Bror Erickson

    I don’t think public or private is the issue. Most laws are broken in private.
    In the secular realm a government needs more reason for declaring something a crime, than that it is immoral. If it was going to go around locking people up for being immoral they would have to lock everyone up. But a society can tolerate somethings, and not others. The government is to keep the peace. This is why tings like murder, and theft are prosecuted. But the immoral womanizer walks free. The question does this infraction of natural law, infringe on the safety and welfare of anyone else? Is probably a good rule of thumb.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Pornography is a good case in point here because of the many victims which are made through its production and public distribution. The lives of women and children are mutilated by the perversions of Playboy and everything more explicit than that and men are made to be subservient to their baser lusts. Plus so much sleep is lost around internet terminals late at night in this country that it must be at least one of the top 3 causes of our nations economic instability. I’m convinced the growing problems of male blindness and hairy palms are being covered up by the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies who must be in league with big media. :)

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Pornography is a good case in point here because of the many victims which are made through its production and public distribution. The lives of women and children are mutilated by the perversions of Playboy and everything more explicit than that and men are made to be subservient to their baser lusts. Plus so much sleep is lost around internet terminals late at night in this country that it must be at least one of the top 3 causes of our nations economic instability. I’m convinced the growing problems of male blindness and hairy palms are being covered up by the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies who must be in league with big media. :)

  • Trey

    Bror,

    If most laws wer violated in private then how do we know any law was broken? If a law is broken in private and the authorities find out about it, it is because it overflows to the public. The government should rule by reason-i.e. wisdom and equity, but the reason is based on the moral law not what makes sense to our current society, but what the natural law tells us is true.

    No one said that we should lock up everyone who was immoral, but that the government should punish the external immorality (sin). The government should make laws to deter and curb immorality not to be apathetic. I am not proposing a military state, but that if caught publicly in sin a person should be punished. The government should rule fairly meaning a person must be proven guilty. Plus, not everyone is externally immoral. People can and do demonstrate civil righteousness. A womanizing man does infringe on the safety of others due to STDs and unwanted pregnancy.

  • Trey

    Bror,

    If most laws wer violated in private then how do we know any law was broken? If a law is broken in private and the authorities find out about it, it is because it overflows to the public. The government should rule by reason-i.e. wisdom and equity, but the reason is based on the moral law not what makes sense to our current society, but what the natural law tells us is true.

    No one said that we should lock up everyone who was immoral, but that the government should punish the external immorality (sin). The government should make laws to deter and curb immorality not to be apathetic. I am not proposing a military state, but that if caught publicly in sin a person should be punished. The government should rule fairly meaning a person must be proven guilty. Plus, not everyone is externally immoral. People can and do demonstrate civil righteousness. A womanizing man does infringe on the safety of others due to STDs and unwanted pregnancy.

  • Jay D

    I do not see how (real life) pornography can be legal but regular prostitution illegal. Pornography is just recordings of prostitutes going about their business. Porn stars get paid to have sex. They are prostitutes. “Pornography” even means “writings about prostitutes.”

  • Jay D

    I do not see how (real life) pornography can be legal but regular prostitution illegal. Pornography is just recordings of prostitutes going about their business. Porn stars get paid to have sex. They are prostitutes. “Pornography” even means “writings about prostitutes.”

  • Van

    I was wondering if we should want the government to tax ANYTHING at 25%? What’s next? Religious materials?

  • Van

    I was wondering if we should want the government to tax ANYTHING at 25%? What’s next? Religious materials?

  • EconJeff

    Porn IS a legitimate business in the eyes of the state. The state DOES allow it. Everybody can argue till their blue in the face about whether it SHOULD be legitimate, but that won’t change the fact of the matter. If conservatives value the rule of law, then why shouldn’t it be treated like any other business?

    Given that, and, if as the article states, demand for porn is inelastic, it is very efficient from an economic standpoint to tax it.

    The public morality has been settled on this matter, I’m afraid, and the ruling has come down on the side that porn counts as art. It is already a part of the culture and I don’t see the culture changing back. At least by taxing it some funds can be raised for things that are social goods.

  • EconJeff

    Porn IS a legitimate business in the eyes of the state. The state DOES allow it. Everybody can argue till their blue in the face about whether it SHOULD be legitimate, but that won’t change the fact of the matter. If conservatives value the rule of law, then why shouldn’t it be treated like any other business?

    Given that, and, if as the article states, demand for porn is inelastic, it is very efficient from an economic standpoint to tax it.

    The public morality has been settled on this matter, I’m afraid, and the ruling has come down on the side that porn counts as art. It is already a part of the culture and I don’t see the culture changing back. At least by taxing it some funds can be raised for things that are social goods.


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