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Sumptuary Tax

A sumptuary tax is a tax imposed on a good or service in order to discourage the use of such for religious or moral reasons. The term sumptuary tax is not much used in the present day, but has rather been replaced by the term sin tax.

While most if not all sin taxes are sumptuary taxes, the reverse is not true. A tax can be sumptuary without being a tax on an item considered sinful by Western society. One good example of this is the tax on carbon emissions. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these emissions because of their impact on the environment and the health of individuals, carbon emissions would not be considered sinful.

Sumptuary taxes have a long history in the United States, particularly those taxes on alcohol. The first such tax was enacted in 1791 on distilled spirits at rates ranging from 7 to 18 cents per gallon. While the tax was enacted in part to discourage the consumption of spirits, there was also a strong profit motive in the enactment of the tax, which is often true when it comes to sumptuary taxes. In this case Alexander Hamilton was looking for a revenue source not dependent on foreign trade. In Western Pennsylvania, where whiskey was used as a form of barter, the tax was opposed so heavily that troops had to be dispatched in 1794 to put down what is now known as The Whiskey Rebellion.

The taxes we repealed under President Jefferson’s administration, but were reinstated briefly during the War of 1812 and then again during the Civil War. As you can tell by the timing, the motives for taxation were most certainly to generate additional revenue. Taxes on both alcohol and tobacco have been ongoing since the civil war and are likely widely accepted because of their sumptuary nature.

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