Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Author: Rebecca Gutwald

On taxing meat – why (not)?

A recent study indicates that reducing the consumption of meat would help considerably to slow down climate change. It may even be one of the most efficient ways to do so, since livestock emissions are making up 14.5 percent of all human causedgreenhouse gas production – which is a little more than that of all cars, trains and planes combined. In addition animal suffering and the adverse effects of excessive meat consumption on human health present two strong reasons why industrial meat production should be severely regulated. Introducing a “sin tax” on meat therefore seems to make a lot of sense from an ethical point of view and also from the perspective of (health) economics. After all, we put so-called “sin taxes” on other behaviours that we consider bad for people or the environment like smoking or fuel. If taxing meat can be supported by even more compelling reasons (after all, neither oil nor tobacco suffer in the production of the desired goods), governments seem to be obliged to engage in it. Surprisingly, however, there has been little discussion so far in politics or the media about it.

One of the main concerns seems to be that taxing meat seems to hit those the hardest that fight with bringing food on the table on a daily basis, namely people with low income. Every excise tax is discriminating towards the poor, since it raises the prices on goods without regard to income. In the case of taxing food I think that most people will react extra sensitive: eating is one of the most basic human needs while smoking or driving a car is (often) not. It seems therefore quite harsh to tax something that most people consider as basic. Especially in countries with a meat based diet (e.g. Germany or the US) people might find that one of their basic sources of nutrition is being taken away. But apart from the strong sentiments, it may be unjust to tax food in general, since poor people will be left with even fewer choices than they have now. This is a serious concern, since many poor families are already in need of food stamps or other subsidies by the government.

Still, I think that analogous arguments from the discussion of taxing fuel or smoking hold. Just as you do not have to smoke and you do not have to drive everywhere (at least if there is public transport available), you do not have to eat meat in those large amounts in which we consume it in the first world. In Western countries, where there are still plenty of choices what groceries to buy and consume, there are many alternatives to the daily dose of ham or sausage. Taxing meat also does not need to make it totally unaffordable. After all, taxes do not need to be sky-high: a moderate rise in the prices of meat may lead to the desired result that people curb their consumption and keep it on a moderate level. In addition, gains from the taxes may be used to promote the production of meat alternatives (e.g. vegetarian spread or sausages, which are still remarkably expensive in most supermarkets) and in subsidizing farmers and companies that provide good conditions for their animals. Thus, animal suffering may also be relieved, which is no small reason. As long as we are talking about a moderate increase in pricing (maybe) together with an investment in supporting meat alternatives I think that taxing meat seems just enough given the benefits.

Another argument may be raised against “sin taxes” in general. A true libertarian might object that the main purpose of taxes is to finance government not to control or even punish people who pay them. However, we may ask what it is we are paying for exactly. If all we want is some sort of Nozickean minimal state the objection is quite valid indeed. But if we also want that the state takes care of our environment and the needs of our descendants, we may also want to finance this enterprise. In the case of climate change I think that the costs and the needs of those who are and will be affected are the decisive reasons, not considerations of paternalist control. States may have to save money in order to deal with the effects of climate change in the future, e.g. with the effects of floods or blizzards. They also need the money to invest in techniques to combat climate change, e.g. alternative energies. Hence, meat taxes would serve a classic purpose.

Of course, one may wonder whether taxing meat is feasible in practice. We may think of the effects of other sin taxes, e.g. people buying cheap cigarettes duty-free or on the black market, or people driving to other countries only to buy fuel). A black market for meat or cheap imports surely does not seem to be desirable considering the pain that may be inflicted on animals. Also, what should be avoided for the same reason is the meat industry trying to counter the effects of the tax by making their production more effective and cheap. Here, only better standards and harder regulation will probably be the best route (and will naturally make meat more expensive). Hence, much more effort is involved in dealing with the problem of our considerable meat consumption than a simple sin tax. Still, I think a moderate meat tax is a good place to start.

The right to freedom of expression on facebook: Do we have a valid claim against censorship in social media?


Image by Giorgi Balakhadze, Wikimedia Commons (I have no rights to this image)

So, it happened. One of my facebook friends got “edited”. Without any further notice, one of his posts about the Gaza conflict vanished from his wall. The post itself was not really radical, it linked to an official article. In his next post he mentioned this. Three of his friends commented that it had happened to them as well. All posts were about Gaza. None of the users were notified by facebook. I think that this case of “silent editing” presents a fitting topic for “justice everywhere”. A rather familiar theme of justice rears its head here, namely the fundamental right of free speech. Do we have a right to express ourselves freely in social media? Should we? 
Facebook’s editing policies have been widely discussed, for instance in the case of a cancer-survivor put her post-mastectomy-picturesup. They were considered pornographic by facebook and consequently removed. Public outrage followed, in the wake of which facebook changed its policy, explicitly allowing post-mastectomy photos. Other incidents included the removal of posts by gay activists or of pictures of artwork or photographs of new-born with a severe birth defect. Most of these cases were not silent, however. Users got notified by facebook.
Facebook explicitly reserves the right to remove content referring to their “community standards” that everyone who joins facebook must agree to. They also state that they do not usually scan posts themselves, but react to complaints by other users that find certain content offensive. The reports are collected by an admin who reviews whether the content does in fact violate facebook’s standards. Thus, not everything that is reported will be removed. Yet, it is ultimately up to facebook to decide what stay’s up and what doesn’t.  (Interestingly, facebook has recently outsourced this work to the firm “oDesk”)
The tone of most of the articles I have quoted above displays a strong sense of entitlement: posters are often furious that their content is taken down. It seems that they feel curtailed in their right to express themselves via facebook. Are these claims justifiable? A powerful (mainly legal) counter-argument comes to mind: facebook is not a governmental organisation; it is a private company only bound by the general laws of the countries it operates in. Arguing on the level of political liberalism, a similar argument could be formulated by pointing out that nobody has to join facebook. People join willingly and knowing that facebook is a platform run by a private company. They need to agree to the latter’s terms and conditions (if they bother to read them), they do not need to post anything and they can terminate their account anytime. The latter is often much easier said than done, but still. Thus, users do not seem to possess the right to post whatever they want. If users do not like it, facebook might retort, they can use other platforms.
Regardless, I want to make a case on the basis of considerations of public justice that facebook needs to honour a right to free expression. The main reason is, in simple words, that facebook is just too big and influential to be excluded from further legal and ethical constraints – for example constraints on classic media or the monitoring that companies underlie which have a monopoly. Private persons, companies, newspapers, tv-channels, non-profit organisations etc. use it to spread information, to present themselves or get in contact with each other. Facebook should therefore be treated as the big media player that it is –  like google. The latter is already familiar with legal claims
      Based on this general assumption, I like to raise four legal-ethical points to argue why and how facebook should honour the right for free expression.
  1. Constitutional rights can be applied to non-governmental organisations, as the laws of some countries show. For instance, German and Austrian law describes the model of a so-called “thirdparty effect of constitutional rights”. The effect comes into play when the people involved have possess “very unequal economic and social power”, e.g. in the relationship between employers and employees. Analogously one could argue that the power gap between companies such as google or facebook and their users is large enough to warrant the consideration that users can evoke their constitutional rights
  2. Since facebook has an enormous bearing on the public debate of political and social issues, it should be subject to media laws and political scrutiny. In analogy to the google case, rights to privacy, to inform themselves freely or not to be harassed need to be respected. Some of them are already part of facebook’s “community standards”, but facebook is the only that monitors their enforcement. 
  3. Facebooks own standards formulate obligations to their users. Facebook promises to leave the rights to content in the user’s hand, whenever standards are not violated. If not, they promise to notify the user (s. point 4 below). It should be made sure that facebook adheres to its own standards.
  4. Transparency presents a prominent principle in procedural justice. People have a right to be informed about the matters that concern them, especially in public interaction and deliberation. If facebook is editing content silently, it clearly violates this right.
What my colleague experienced can, in my view, called “censorship” (a term that is usually reserved for government action) in a strong form. My point is thus that governmental institutions should have a way to interfere in this case. At least they should monitor processes more closely. This includes that facebook discloses it policies and operations. What do you think?

P.S. I admit to being a frequent facebook user to gather information and keep in contact with people I do not see on a regular basis. Interestingly, my post linking to an article about Gideon Levy and his reports from Gaza is still up, while it disappeared from other walls. Not sure what that means.

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