Sin Taxes: Is pornography next?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 24, 2019

It has long been common in the United States to single out products regarded as “sinful” or “addictive” for higher taxes. The logic is that consumers who lack self control are a good source of government revenue. Classic examples include alcohol and cigarettes. Closely related are “luxury” taxes, such as you pay in many places when you eat at a nice restaurant or put up in a hotel. Gasoline taxes, by contrast, are more a matter of hitting people where they can’t afford not to pay.

In any case, the latest target for the sin/addiction tax, apparently, is pornography. According to one of my regular technology sources, PC Magazine, a lawmaker in Arizona is proposing a tax on online pornography partly to help fund the proposed border wall to separate the State from Mexico. It is likely that the bill won’t pass, but apparently taxes on pornography have been proposed for different purposes in other states as well, including Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia.

It is one of the shabbier sides of government that it seeks to exploit vices to increase funding. Another example is the infamous state lotteries. Although legal barriers to gambling are slowly crumbling in the United States, there is still a strong sense that more generalized lotteries must be controlled by government and highly restricted—partly (or largely, now) to protect the state’s monopoly on this source of revenue, even though incessant public lotteries contribute to the financial and family problems of a great many Americans.

This doesn’t mean I don’t spend a buck on the occasional lottery ticket just for fun. But to take another example, CatholicCulture.org cannot run any sort of online lottery to raise funds. It is illegal for us. Yet it is big business for most state governments and Washington, DC.

But I digress. Taxing pornography would be a colossal hypocrisy, similar to the Devil’s deal on tobacco. Unlike pornography, the moral evil of smoking in various forms is highly debatable, but “big tobacco” is more or less universally regarded as evil by our government and dominant culture. And so, of course, government has lined up the tobacco companies, awarded huge damages to groups which file suit against them, funded studies, and published grave warnings…and kept them in business as a huge source of tax revenue.

If taxation of pornography gets off the ground, there will be more justification for regarding the product as evil and less emphasis by government on that aspect of the problem. But it will be an interesting study in how a government that cannot define pornography for the purposes of legal restriction has no trouble defining it to generate tax revenue. And as a useful addiction for tax purposes, pornography will be very hard to beat.


For a related discussion of the ubiquity of pornography, listen to Abriana Cilelli’s experience in combating it on The Catholic Culture Podcast: Episode 8: How to Stop Public Porn.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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