Dr. Pepper or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Soda Tax

Selen Güler, University of Washington

Moral classifications continually influence people’s judgments, actions, and place in social space. The economic sphere is no different. However, how the state moderates morality in markets, has not been placed under much scrutiny. A tax that is implemented on goods because they are deemed harmful to society, is a direct example of moral exercise on the part of the state. So, I ask, how does morality shape and is shaped by the changes in the tax system? I examine the effects of the new tax on sweetened beverages, which has been gaining currency across the United States. I use evidence from a factorial vignette to show how taxing a morally debated commodity influences people’s moral evaluations of consumption. I also experimentally manipulate the race and class of the imagined soda consumer to test how social status matters for evaluations of a morally contested consumption practice. To investigate moral variability with respect to taxing soda, and the social markers of the buyer, I test how people evaluate soda consumers in reference to the US market for healthcare. Respondents consider buying soda as less wrong, and less relevant for health care, when the tax is present. Study also points to significant variation in moral judgements based on the respondents’ social markers. I find evidence suggesting that lower status groups may be held to lower standards of moral conduct in comparison to members of higher status groups, even when they engage in identical consumption practices. For the existing research on morality and markets, this indicates the significance of contemporary status politics. Overall, the broader lesson about the state and morality goes beyond the beverage tax: moral valuation needs to be considered alongside monetary valuation, when turning to market-based instruments to effect social and political change.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 41. Moral Commitments and Political Action