It’s All About Greed, Folks

by Patrick J. Buchanan – May 22, 1998

A single vote in the Senate last week told us all we need to know about the real motives behind the $516 billion tobacco bill.

An amendment was offered by Sen. Lauch Faircloth to cap the fees of trial lawyers involved in this deal at $250 an hour. The lawyers would thereby be limited to $2,000 a day, $10,000 a week, $520,000 a year. Said the conservative North Carolinian, this bill is turning into a trial lawyers’ “pot of gold.”

Faircloth’s amendment was crushed, 58-39.

Forget the kids. This bill is about naked greed — the greed of politicians for money and power, and of trial lawyers shocked that anyone would think of limiting their fees to $520,000 a year.

Fearful of demagogues ranting, “You’re in the pocket of Big Tobacco! You don’t care about our children!” the Senate is about to approve the largest transfer of wealth and power from citizens to government in a decade. If the tobacco bill becomes law, it would wipe out the entire tax cut the GOP won in the budget deal of 1997, making this Congress a net disaster for U.S. taxpayers.

If the GOP House goes along, there is no argument left for a Republican Congress, for not a single provision of this bill can be squared with a philosophy of limited government and low taxes.

The key provision calls for raising the price of a single pack of cigarettes by $1.10. For a two-pack-a-day factory worker and his pack-a-day wife, this would rip $1,200 a year out of take-home pay. Three in five dollars of the $516 billion raised would come out of the paychecks of workers earning less than $30,000 a year — making this bill a punitive act of class warfare against folks who happen to enjoy a habit our snobbish elite has come to detest.

As for the regulatory provisions, they seem more befitting a socialist state. The FDA would be empowered to control nicotine as an illicit substance. Here truly is a textbook example of political cowardice. Lacking the courage to outlaw smoking, our politicians wish to transfer that power to unelected bureaucrats and thereby relieve themselves of political accountability.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration would be empowered to police entrances to public buildings to ensure that smokers are driven away. Our new cigarette Gestapo.

And if this fails to cut teen smoking? In that case, the tobacco companies are to pay billions of dollars in annual fines because yet another law the politicians enacted failed to achieve the goals the politicians predicted. Now, there’s real justice for you.

During the debate, we have heard that the tobacco companies are “merchants of death” and that their executives are liars who have “sold disability and death on every street corner.” So says Dr. C. Everett Koop.

But if all this is true, why don’t the politicians have the guts to shut the wicked industry down?

Simple: If they did, they could not skim off from the merchants of death that $516 billion they are slavering over. As Sen. Orrin Hatch warned, “If we bankrupt the companies, or if we drive them offshore, ultimately, no one wins.” Even the dimmer bulbs among Al Capone’s underbosses understood that if you blew up the guy’s business, you couldn’t shake him down anymore.

Why doesn’t the U.S. government just nationalize the tobacco companies? Answer: If they did, the government could not sustain the fiction that it truly wanted to end smoking because government would then be getting all, rather than almost all, of the profits from a product that was killing Americans and poisoning children.

For statists and demagogues, the tobacco bill is the best of all possible worlds. It enables them to posture as protectors of children and heroic enemies of Big Tobacco — at the same time, they become secret senior partners of Big Tobacco and principal profiteers from the buying and selling of their addictive products.

With this bill, the U.S. government acquires a huge stake in smokers continuing to smoke. For, if all the smokers quit, where would the Feds get their $516 billion to play with?

Therein lies is the dirty little secret of the tobacco tax.

Smoking, drinking and gambling were the three vices against which an older generation, in good conscience, used to declaim. Our politicians, however, have discovered that you can both denounce these evils and skim off most of the profits from all three.

To paraphrase the Clintonites, “It’s the money, stupid.”