General Question

Ltryptophan's avatar

Why doesn't the law control more/less behaviors?

Asked by Ltryptophan (10839points) February 7th, 2011

Particularly, harmful actions by individuals. Why not a fat tax, or a smoker’s tax(beyond the built in taxes)?

Why are some harmful behaviors controlled and others ignored? How is that constitutional?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

54 Answers

WestRiverrat's avatar

You do know that 70+% of the cost of a pack cigarettes is taxes, don’t you? As long as the governments are making that kind of money off of cigarettes, what incentive do they have to eliminate them. Rhode Island

And several localities are trying to add a fat tax.

zenvelo's avatar

aren’t the harmful behaviors only controlled when they infringe on others? Like seatbelts save on hospital costs, so do motorcycle helmets. There are plenty of sin taxes, like on liquor.

there are proposals for sugar taxes for sodas, but it’s hard to apply it without also taxing certain juices.

jazzticity's avatar

The reason is that there is no agreement on which behaviors are the most harmful. Cigarettes are an easy target. Wine and beer? It seems they’re good for you in moderation. French fries? Pork? Potato chips? Ice cream? Butter? Whole milk? Soft drinks? It’s hard to defend these things, even in moderation. But try taxing them and see what kind of reaction you get. People don’t like to be told what to do. And we all like to defend our own behavior by looking at the other guy and pointing out what he’s doing wrong. I’d say governments should tread lightly here.

jerv's avatar

Define “harmful behavior” first. Some would consider voting for a Democrat to be “harmful”, while others consider not going to church to be bad. I am an omnivore, so some would consider me bad for eating meat, Some go further in that direction and would want to tax me severely for my love of cheese.

Personally, if we started doing that then I would push for a “stupid tax”; anybody with an IQ under 120 gets dinged in the wallet. It’s not so much discrimination as retribution; it’s about as fair.

iamthemob's avatar

Because the law shouldn’t be there to control my behavior. It should be there to protect my rights.

peridot's avatar

Oh, “fat tax” is next on the American docket. Because overweight people have been positively idolized up until recently, donchaknow.

How about taxes for people who make too many babies, or who make babies for the wrong reasons? Who’ll arbitrate that, hmm??

josie's avatar

I think there should be a bad breath tax. Or a body odor tax.

Nullo's avatar

Because there are lots of people who think that some things aren’t the government’s business.
Uncle Sam isn’t your Mama, and so shouldn’t be in the business of trying to raise you.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

Many laws are based upon what is en vogue at the time… take the 18th Amendment (Liquor Abolished). The 21st Amendment had to repeal that Amendment. Taxing an item (behavior) is not the same as making a law against it. If more people were concerned with making themselves better and less concerned about what their neighbors were doing unless it infringed on their basic rights, less laws would be needed. The question has become, when does that infringement occur?

coffeenut's avatar

Who would decide what things are good or bad for you?

Giving more power to run our lives to some of the worst morally corrupt, back stabbing, argumentative, two-faced, brain dead, egg sucking, people in the government…....Bad idea.

We don’t need to shape our world around bullshit ideas…. If we turn our lives like the “advanced” society of “Demolition Man” ...... I don’t want Rat burgers

Sandman's avatar

Because we’re human beings! Everything entailed therein under the Constitution such as it is should support that. Just because something is harmful in one person’s perspective doesn’t mean it should be forced on another. It’s why we don’t have a state religion.

Ltryptophan's avatar

Seems a consensus exists supporting less behavior control, so why don’t we decriminalize more behaviors?

bkcunningham's avatar

@Ltryptophan harmful behaviors are “controlled” in the judicial branch of our government from the local courts all the way up to the US Supreme Court.

WasCy's avatar

I don’t need to be protected from myself, thanks just the same.

But law is changing to prevent some of these “bad behaviors” as you call them. It’s hard to find many public places that allow smoking indoors (in the USA) any more, for example. This has been a major sea change in my lifetime. It used to be the norm to walk into a “smoky bar”. That’s practically a staple of literature from the first part of the last century. No more; they’re all smoke-free now. Ditto offices, restaurants, you name it. No Smoking.

We’ve also stepped up enforcement against drunk driving. That was another big change. Earlier in my life “the town drunk” (and his driving) was a regular comedy staple. Not so any more; he’s in jail now, or in rehab.

But those laws are only for people who want to breathe smoke-free air and drive on roads with a moderate assurance that the drunks aren’t running wild. Those laws protect my right to live, as @iamthemob mentioned.

iamthemob's avatar

I think @WasCy puts it very well in the first line above: “I don’t need to be protected from myself.”

The problem is when we attempt to enforce moral norms by legislating the behavior. For me, when laws or regulations are passed that attempt to influence or prevent behavior, the question that must be asked is “Does this attempt to prevent an individual from actually or potentially shifting the cost of his behavior to others.”

For instance, I am not against vice taxes like those on cigarettes, although I reserve judgment on whether they work in practice. An individual’s choice to smoke is one that should be allowed, but more in the sense that it should be tolerated. A vice tax is properly placed when the purpose of it is to offset the increased health care costs such individuals impose on society. Certain individual choices such as smoking impose costs not only on the smoker but also on those around him that are often not taken into consideration when the choice is initially made.

The problem with decriminalizing behavior that is harmful like smoking but currently illegal unlike smoking is that there really are no good intrinsic arguments to make arguing for decriminalization in most cases. The fact that prohibition was the law of the land once but now isn’t is, in many ways, unfortunate – imagine growing up in a world without liquor. As much as I love my drinks, I can’t argue that we would most likely be more healthy, emotionally and physically.

Prohibition failed, ironically, not because the policy itself isn’t arguably the best one for us, but because people will inevitably do what feels good. Not all people, and not all the time – but many if not most, and often if not frequently.

“Morals” legislation fails because we do not act morally all the time, and that’s a hard sell, because we are symbolically yielding to the worst in us, and giving legal license for bad behavior.

Of course, there are plenty of arguments about the incredibly harmful unintended consequences of morals legislation – organized crime, gang violence, secrecy in addiction, etc. The problem with bringing these into the discussion is that we expect criminals to profit off of the “degradation and suffering” of others (as those who sell drugs and pimp prostitutes might), but once decriminalized we create a market for both our government and citizens to profit from something that, understandably, most find morally distasteful. All the potential benefits from shining a legal light on the black market (protections for men and women sex workers, profit from taxing drugs being injected into recovery and prevention programs) have to come back to this unseemly fact – we are funding the solution by selling the problem.

The problem in the end is not whether, I believe, most morals legislation should be decriminalized – it’s figuring out how to sell recognition of our own depravity as a benefit.

john65pennington's avatar

There are criminal laws and there are civil laws. I have always said that laws were made to be broken and the crime statistics back my beliefs. Criminal laws are designed by degrees of seriousness. Homocide would definetely take precident over a person smoking in a restaurant, in a non-smoking state. It’s like an ER at a hospital. the more serious wounds and illnesses come before a person with a runny nose.

People’s behavior patterns are forever changing. This is why the lawmakers draft new laws everyday and repeal outdated laws, effecting man.

The answer lies within the people we elect into public office.

zophu's avatar

The law is a superficial bandage over an untreated wound where it isn’t an exploitation of society’s rejects. It’s not there to help us grow stronger, it’s there to contain us. Trying to actively help improve people’s behavior, just for the sake of improving their behavior, would draw too much attention to intrinsic flaws of the system as a whole, I think. It would end up having a dictatory feel to it as well. It takes great elegance to change people for the better. Our system isn’t capable of that.

Ltryptophan's avatar

Fyi i am not supporting criminalizng anything, just discussing the way the lines are drawn…

perspicacious's avatar

The government already intrudes too much into the daily lives of Americans.

WasCy's avatar

I’ll go farther than @iamthemob would: legislating behavior that you consider to be evil for someone else is a worse evil in itself.

I’m totally and irrevocably opposed to drug laws, for example, as well as prohibitions on prostitution and gambling. It’s not that I shoot up or smoke, whore and gamble; I don’t do any of those things. But if someone wants to, and if someone else wants to voluntarily supply those goods and services, then more power to them. I’m not in favor of legislating others’ non-harmful behavior to themselves… or to any other third parties.

I have qualms about “competence” to judge risks, so it’s not as if I think children should be exposed to any of those things, or non-competent adults, for that matter.

The argument about “costs to society” is a non-starter. “Society” shouldn’t be covering costs for others’ behavior. If we paid for our own health insurance – took responsibility for our own selves, in other words – then those providing the insurance could decide to charge based on actuarial analysis of real costs to insure different behaviors. Coverage might even be cancelled or reduced in the case of failure to disclose known risks, the way life insurance is rightly curtailed if a covered person fails to disclose (or lies about) medical or behavioral questions in the application process.

If we’re all so gung-ho to legislate “risky behavior” out of existence (and seemingly all in favor of seat belt laws, for example), then why do we still even allow motorcycles on public roadways? It’s not that I think they should be banned – I don’t! – but driving or riding on a motorcycle with or without a helmet is far more risky than riding in a car, even without a seatbelt.

iamthemob's avatar


Why do you feel that costs to society is a non-starter? When someone fails to accurately account for the potential costs of their behavior, costs are inevitably shifted to society in one way or another. It could be direct in terms of state-covered health care, or it could be indirect in the case of an individual, faced with mounting health care costs and no reserves, turning to crime.

Paying for health insurance, in most cases, is really simply cost-spreading and shifting major health costs of an individual to the population at large. Many people will have their income reduced by an amount that does not reflect their health care costs – but rather the increased costs of someone making bad life choices.

So the problem with saying that “costs to society” is a non-starter is that we can’t resort to insurance at all – as some people will get a windfall buying into it and some people will be penalized.

WasCy's avatar


As soon as we can predict the ‘exact’ costs of insurance for individuals, there will no longer be ‘insurance’. Unless you want to prohibit other ‘risky’ behaviors, such as rock-climbing, hang-gliding, motocross racing, singlehanded sailing (I’m sure you get the idea), then why single out the behaviors that you don’t like as particularly subject to curtailment?

I’m in favor of private insurance companies making their own assessments of “lifestyle” and charging / covering risks accordingly, probably by offering different insurance packages. (As a more or less sedentary person, I’d probably pay a higher premium, and I’m okay with that. I prefer that to “mandatory calisthenics on the village green”, for sure.) You continue to cop out on the responsibility issue, assuming that people will throw themselves on the mercy of the state because they have no care or choose not to afford it, or they’ll turn to crime. If we’re going to have a society that attempts to legislate everyone else’s behavior in terms of what you or I think is “good for them”, then I’m going to opt out of that in a quick hurry. I’d sooner live in Somalia.

iamthemob's avatar

You continue to cop out on the responsibility issue, assuming that people will throw themselves on the mercy of the state because they have no care or choose not to afford it, or they’ll turn to crime.

I’m not copping out on the “responsibility issue.” The fact is regardless of the system, people will behave in a manner that will increase costs to those other than themselves. People will behave irresponsibly and end up in a position where they may turn to crime. I’m not saying “crime epidemic! panic now!” However, it’s inevitable.

Personally, I focus on something like smoking because (1) it’s cheap, (2) it’s common, (3) it causes massive costs.There are objective reasons to focus on it and not rock climbing statistically.

Regarding the actuarial assessments affecting costs, would it only be voluntary behavior? For instance, is it right to charge someone a higher premium because they are predisposed to cancer? If so, we’re not really calculating on personal responsibility, but factors outside the controls of the beneficiary.

So I’m just not sure how you feel like paying into private health care remedies shifting social burdens…

VS's avatar

I’d like to know whatever happened to accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions??? Stop waiting on the government to tell you that eating nine cheeseburgers is bad for you. I am continually amazed each and every morning, I drive by a McDonald’s with three drive-thru lanes, all of which are backed up six or eight deep of people paying good money to start their day out being poisoned!! Even with great legislation, it is impossible to protect people from themselves!!

Summum's avatar

Laws were not put in place to control your life but to protect and help you live among others. If we keep expecting the government to rule our lifes then it could come down to when you can get up in the morning, when you can go to the bathroom, when you can speak etc… I agree with others take responsibilities for your own actions 100%.

jazzticity's avatar

I’m not comfortable with attacks on smokers, even though I’ve never smoked a day in my life. I think they’re easy targets, and there are statistics that can easily be gathered. But I’m not at all convinced that smoking causes more deaths than obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise. It’s just that we can’t measure these things with any accuracy.

iamthemob's avatar

Who’s attacking smokers though? I’m a smoker…(for now).

jazzticity's avatar

Glad you feel that way. Smokers have certainly been vilified, and restrictions seem to be increasing on an ongoing basis. (E.g. no smoking in public places, no smoking within 10 feet of a public place, increasing cigarette taxes, increasing the minimum smoking age, and so forth.) It almost appears to be a march to eventual prohibition.

WasCy's avatar

@jazzticity I’m afraid you’re right. And that will be a shame. I don’t smoke, and I don’t care to be around smokers, but I don’t want to see prohibition. (For one reason, it will increase crime more than simply tautologically “smokers are criminals”, but there will be a great black market trade in tobacco and there will certainly be recruitment and crossover to other forms of crime as well.

I’m also opposed to mandatory seat belt laws.

I absolutely think that people “should” use seat belts and “should not” smoke – but the law is a hammer that shouldn’t be used to mold people’s private behavior.

bkcunningham's avatar

@WasCy how much do you think you could get today from a hi-jacked tractor trailer loaded with cartons of cigs?

iamthemob's avatar

Do people actually believe that we’re heading toward prohibition of smoking?

bkcunningham's avatar

Hint: In 1968 John Gotti got arrested for doing this and they cigs were estimated at $50,000 and it wasn’t a full trailer load.

lemming's avatar

Do you really think people should be taxed for being a slight harm to themselves? We aren’t all perfect. This question really annoys me, some people enjoy smoking and are no harm to those around them, because now we have to smoke outside in public places (Ireland) and besides, we can hardly afford a pack of smokes. This trifty thinking will lead us to a nanny state where you were you’ll be fined on the spot for scratching your nose.

iamthemob's avatar

@lemmingHere is a nice summary of the potential external costs associated with smoking. The problem with saying that smoking is a decision that is about the person and what they want to do with their bodies’ is that there are ripple effects.

The report indicates that the actual cost of a pack of cigarettes in Michigan is $40.00.

lemming's avatar

Interesting findings. But I think they should put more effort into preventing kids from starting to smoke. You can’t just tax the hell out of, or outright ban something people are already addicted to.

iamthemob's avatar

@lemming – But why isn’t taxation an appropriate response? Bans are off the table…we’re not going to see prohibition again.

lemming's avatar

Because we are already addicted. All I know is that I’m a student who intends to quit in the future, but now I am enjoying smoking for a while, only I can’t really even afford to. I can’t afford a seven a day smoking habit.

iamthemob's avatar

@lemming – But you’re not being penalized by the government for being addicted. It’s simply adding an externalized cost of your smoking to the cost of the pack of cigarettes.

If that revenue is taken away, where else should the government tax to replace that revenue?

lemming's avatar

Ok, if the smokers are causing the expenditure, maybe the smokers should pay. Except I’m on private healthcare so I’m not costing anybody anything.

TexasDude's avatar

@iamthemob Because the law shouldn’t be there to control my behavior. It should be there to protect my rights.

Spot fucking on.

Also, it’s a slippery slope when you allow the goobermint to start doing things “for your own good,” “for your protection,” and/or “for the children.”

WasCy's avatar

Not going to see prohibition again?

Explain The War on Some Drugs, then.

syzygy2600's avatar

Cigarettes, butter, and soda are fine for you in moderation. If you eat too many apples you could get cyanide poisoning…why no apple tax?

Of course people who smoke a pack a day, slather butter on everything, and drink 3 liters of soda a day will not be healthy. You can however, enjoy a can of Coke a day without your teeth rotting out and turning into a blob.

As far as smoking goes, the oldest human to ever live smoked 1 or 2 cigarettes a day. So did the oldest Canadian ever.

People have a choice. If you choose to smoke a pack a day, drink 3 liters of soda a day, and slather everything you eat in salt and butter, thats your problem. I don’t need to government treating me like a baby whose too stupid to look after himself. If I want a can of soda or a cigarette, that’s my choice, not the government’s, and not the health nazi’s.

TexasDude's avatar

Too much being alive will cause you to die. Dead people cost society billions each year. We should tax being alive.~

Ltryptophan's avatar

Here’s my take: Law enforcement takes place 99% of the time between individuals who never take part in the justice system.

That’s how civilization really works. Whether we ratchet down on personal freedoms or not it will always come down to close personal interactions.

So, @VS I agree, personal responsibility is the answer, not just for yourself but also for your fellow men.

Further, we must create a culture that fosters nurturing each other.

100 years from now a stranger I meet on the street today may be the great great grandfather of the same person as me.

I want you all to prosper in freedom, with my help.

I want to prosper in this freedom we enjoy, and I need help.

When we align our behaviors for shared goals the result can be a nightmare or it can mean a golden age of prosperity.

Bad behaviors hurt everyone. If being healthy helps; then you don’t need a law against hamburgers for you to count on me to do my best not to burden our healthcare system with one more heart patient.

The nature of personal responsibility is not to give you the freedom to make bad choices; it is the freedom to use your mistakes for positive growth.

The abuse of freedom leads those who suffer by it to seek safety in new laws that restrict harmful behavior.

It is our responsibility to create a culture wherein the abuse of freedom is not illegal, it is extinguished in the vacuum of solidarity.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

Laws should be put in place to protect the rights and property of people.
My belief is that all rights derive from property rights. The first property you own is yourself when you are born. The only thing that limits your rights are someone else’s equal rights.
In other words, as long as I am not affecting you or your property, there should be no law in place to affect my behavior. I believe if laws were in place based on this notion, our system would be much less corrupt.

Instead, we have laws out the ass, and as you said in your question, “why are some behaviors controlled, yet some ignored,” most of which are not put in place to protect people or property, but are a means of revenue.

The smoker’s and fat tax are the two most common “sin” taxes talked about which is absolutely ridiculous in my mind for a few reasons. We subsidize the tobacco and corn industry, so if we are looking to come up with revenue to offset the costs of being a smoker or obese, lets stop subsidizing first rather than adding a tax on top of the subsidy. Research has shown that most cancer caused by smoking is due to the phosphate-rich fertilizer which releases radioactive polonium into the tobacco and diabetes and obesity have also shown to increase due to high fructose corn syrup being used instead of sugar.

I really wish that we could stop taking a reactionary approach to everything and look at things logically and realize that we are moving towards a society that is looking like its right out of a scene of Demolition Man or Minority Report.

George Carlin said it best, “the people that run this country dont want smart, free-thinking citizens, they want obedient workers.” Thats what theyre getting…

Nullo's avatar

Law is there to put teeth into societal expectations. We can’t really agree on more than a handful of those.
Anyway, I think that there’s a lot in law that used to be handled by culture, back before it was beaten into permissiveness.

iamthemob's avatar

@Nullo – and once we get rid of legislation that privileges/criminalizes certain moral behavior, we’ll be left with unrestricted moral choice and the actions and interactions of individuals in their relationships with each other will end up succeeding based on whether or not they make people happy and productive.

Imagine a world where behavior is judged solely on whether it actually produces a harm free from the shackles of law, regulation, and Christian shame. The horror. ;-)

Nullo's avatar

@iamthemob I do not see that as an improvement. It’s fine if you’re a Utilitarian, but a lot of us aren’t. Harm is not the greatest evil.

iamthemob's avatar

@Nullo – Maybe not – but I bet if you ask 100 people what the greatest evil was, you’d get about a hundred answers. ;-)

Nullo's avatar

@iamthemob Which is why a common moral standard is so very, very important.

iamthemob's avatar

@Nullo – The fact that we don’t agree on what the greatest evils are doesn’t mean that we don’t have overlapping and near-identical general moral standards. Common moral standards end up being ideological and often contradictory in the end. Most of the “morally debatable” issues that we face are a product of ideologies rather than any real observable harm, or attribute the harm based on the ideologies rather than actual analysis.

It’s exactly why common moral standards often lead to inappropriately invasive legislation trying to “control” behavior.

MissAnthrope's avatar

One thing I hate about America is the ‘nanny state’ of things, where the government tries to make everyone ‘safe’, from… well.. everything. I feel very strongly that the last thing we need is more laws to control people’s behaviors, particularly if these behaviors are only harmful to the individual doing them.

If I want to smoke, or be fat, or do drugs, I will absolutely do that. Why? Because it’s my damn body and the government has no say whatsoever over what I do with chez moi.

In Italy, I love that there aren’t warning signs all over the place, that the government doesn’t try to hold your hand and treat you like an imbecile who is going to get injured out of sheer stupidity. I like that they assume, when approaching a cliff, that you’re smart enough to recognize if you go to the edge, there’s a chance you might fall off.

I’m for fewer laws, more individuality, and more natural selection.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@iamthemob I’m interested in what you mean by this sentence:

It’s exactly why common moral standards often lead to inappropriately invasive legislation trying to “control” behavior.

Please elaborate…

iamthemob's avatar

“We don’t think people should drink” is perhaps the best one. The sentiment was so great that a Constitutional amendment was passed banning it.

Of course, a few years later, that amendment was…well…amended away as it just pushed underground and, essentially, created organized crime as the families suddenly had a boom industry to run.

It’s the moral standards about how people should live their lives that end up creating the problem – and also what consenting adults should do with each other. They are, most of the time, decent standards to adhere to – but criminalizing them is always problematic.

Answer this question




to answer.

This question is in the General Section. Responses must be helpful and on-topic.

Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther