During the early 1950’s, Americans were transfixed by hearings and investigations conducted by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Senator Kefauver laid bare the power and profits of organized crime in America, which generated massive income for mobsters through gambling, drugs, and pornography/prostitution operations that spanned our nation. As a result, Americans supported a renewed crackdown on organized crime operations that sent many top mobsters to prison.
The scourge of organized crime still exists today, but what is truly odd is how many of the profit centers for the criminals of the past have been transformed into government-run agencies that generate jobs, grant political power, and allow states and the federal government to skim their “cut” in the form of taxes. Even more oddly, more and more law enforcement resources are today devoted to destroying “illegal” operations so that government can protect its growing monopoly on the profits to be made from human sin and weakness. Woe to that misguided fool who tries to deal a little marijuana without first purchasing a state license to do so!
Government has, of course, always enacted “sin taxes” in order to finance its operations. Taxes on whiskey helped to fund our new nation. Revenue from the sale of tobacco and tobacco products have been mainstays of state and federal coffers. Prior to the creation of the national income tax in 1913, roughly 1/3 of all federal revenues came from taxes on liquor, and when income tax revenues evaporated at the height of The Great Depression in 1933, Prohibition was rapidly repealed so that federal liquor taxes could again slosh into the U.S. Treasury.
This last example—Prohibition being repealed to fund a dead broke government—is perhaps the most pertinent regarding where we are today. Bedeviled by crumbling infrastructure, crushed by legacy retirement expenses, and faced with a shrinking population of active workers, government entities at all levels are desperate for whatever tax dollars they can find. Therefore, virtually any human activity and enterprise now finds itself subject to more taxes, fees, and surcharges meant to fund local, state, and federal budgets that are awash in red ink.
It should, therefore, surprise few that government has increasingly legalized that which was once illegal in order to generate the dollars it needs to stay afloat. As a result, the numbers racket of the 1950’s is now the state lottery agency. The demon weed dealer of the 1950’s is now the licensed—and tax paying—marijuana dispensary providing service with a smile. The shady pornographer snapping photos in the seedier parts of town is now a web conglomerate with an army of attorneys watching out for its best interests. What all now have in common is that what was once the illicit business of the criminal class has now become the revenue generator of the political class—and each day new ideas for better marketing that will help to milk them for more taxes are considered. I can only imagine the chagrin of a numbers runner of the 1950’s if he could only see the ads blaring from televisions today regarding the size of this week’s Powerball prize. State lottery revenues alone are now over $70 billion nationally each year—not exactly chump change.
Many would—and have—argued that is is better for government rather than gangsters to profit from vice. Those who, for example, tout state lotteries as a way to (sort of) support public education see nothing but advantage from putting the neighborhood numbers runner on the sidelines. Watching video slot machines sprout like daffodils after an April rain in my own—very broke—state of Illinois, it is clear that looming bankruptcy is the mother of all moral compromise. Politicians and civic leaders who are eager to increase funding for government programs and services they deem essential in the face of yawning budget deficits have no compunctions about taking whatever money they can by any means necessary. A 2009 article entitled “Paying With Our Sins” perhaps expressed this notion more unashamedly that most:
Here’s a better idea—and one that will help the federal and state governments fill their coffers: Legalize drugs and then tax sales of them. And while we’re at it, welcome all forms of gambling (rather than just the few currently and arbitrarily allowed) and let prostitution go legit too. All of these vices, involving billions of dollars and consenting adults, already take place. They just take place beyond the taxman’s reach.
This is the basic and succinct argument for turning dysfunctional and damaging behaviors into lovely tax dollars, and assessed upon its ruthlessly practical merits it makes perfect sense. Is there, however, a hidden cost to all the money that might rain from the sky if we were take the government’s propensity for profiting from human weakness, addiction, and desire to its logical and utterly amoral extreme? Is turning human misery into tax money by legitimizing that from which government was—at one time long ago—constituted to protect us delegitimizing the very purpose of government and exposing millions to untold risk, danger, and death?
Politicians often seem befuddled about the public’s low opinion of them. Why should this not be the case? Do we admire the player, pusher, or pimp? Are we supposed to sing the praises of those who instead of wanting a chicken in every pot propose a prostitute on every street corner—tax identification numbers ready in hand? Given that so many of our leaders seem just fine with throwing any shred of morality out the window in pursuit of a tax dollar—and the campaign contribution sure to shortly follow hard upon—it should be little wonder that a sense of absolute betrayal and disgust aimed at our elected officials seems so baked into the very fabric of our society at the current time.
Over the course of a single human lifespan, we have descended from aspiring to raise individuals higher so they can escape the clutches of human frailty to pushing them lower so that we can turn a profit for the government from their flaws. To hear a contemporary American politician speak of honor and integrity when they are complicit in a system as damaging to individuals, families, and communities as ours is today is learn what the meaning of mendacity truly is. We need change—and soon—before we finally choke on the bile of so many official lies.