When self-checkout kiosks began appearing in supermarkets in the early part of this decade, I resisted them stubbornly. They seemed to be a symptom of the deification of efficiency, and of the modern tendency to avoid meaningful interaction with other people–two phenomena to which I am just as susceptible as anyone else.
It did not take long for me to mellow on this, if for no other reason than that the stores were making use of fewer red-blooded cashiers in the wake of this new invention. I began to take note of some of the advantages of the self-checkout routine. For one thing, if I’m in a bad mood, I don’t risk subjecting some innocent person to my bad vibe, but for another thing, I pay more attention to certain details on my grocery bill.
One of those details concerns items which are taxed and items which are not taxed. Here in the State of Pennsylvania, the tale is that necessary items are not taxed–for example, clothing and food. Of course, some foods are taxed, if they are deemed to be non-essential. Soda, for instance, is taxed, if I recall correctly.
Never in my life would I have thought that soap would be a taxable item. Imagine my surprise when, on a trip to the store this evening, sales tax came up after I ran the hand soap over the scanner. On what planet is soap not necessary? And are some soaps tax free? I happen to have certain soaps that I like, soaps that kill bacteria and that do not dry, crack, and shred my hands all to hell. How is this not an essential item? Would the people who have to sit next to me on the subway agree that soap is non-essential?
All of this brings out the absurdity in having the government decide what is necessary and what is not. The truth of the matter is that different materials are necessary for different people. (So, as far as soap is concerned, it would be a question, I think, of kind, and not of whether or not one uses it!) To me, having a large pickup truck (to which I will, by the way, never aspire) would be a luxury, but to a hard-working plumber or farmer, it’s surely a necessity. To most people, eating out in restaurants is a frill; but to nomadic workers, it’s a necessity. The short version of this story is that the government is in no position to determine, even for the poorest citizens, what is necessary and what is not. The bureaucrats do not and will never have all the required information to divine (pun intended!) such things. This is a flaw that F.A. Hayek discussed in the context of Central Planning in his fairly good book The Road to Serfdom.
Of course, I don’t expect any Philadelphia tea parties over the State sales tax. After all, it seems that most people regard the absence of the sales tax on certain items to be a favor, like it’s the equivalent to an employer handing out Christmas bonuses. Perhaps this is because most people, having resigned themselves to dealing with what’s right in front of their faces, have not reflected on the manifest injustice that is taxation in all its forms.
And that really stinks.