Rational Sin: How Chicago Economics Remade Global Public Health

David Reubi, 2017, Limn, 9 | Part of Special Issue on Little Development Devices/Humanitarian Goods edited by Stephen Collier, Jamie Cross, Peter Redfield & Alice Street.

In the last 20 years, global health experts have recognized the importance and encouraged the adoption of sin taxes in the fight against non-communicable diseases in the Global South. These sin taxes are typical of the micro-technologies that have proliferated in the fields of development and humanitarian aid in the past two decades, what Stephen Collier, Peter Redfield, and their colleagues have called “little development devices” and “humanitarian goods” (Collier et al., 2017; Cross, 2013; Redfield, 2012). In this essay, I shed some light on the complex genealogies of these micro-technologies by unpacking some of the political theories, scientific concepts, and ethical norms that make up sin taxes. I suggest that sin taxes are built around a particular subject – the rational actor seeking to maximize their welfare in line with their own preferences – whose origins can be traced back to the Chicago School’s microeconomic tradition and its concern with rational choice theory. In doing so, I draw on Madeleine Akrich’s (1992) concept of “de-scription” and her claim that one can find inscribed in a technical device many of the assumptions, aspirations, and values of those who designed it. In my de-scription of sin taxes, I examine the work of a small network of economists led by University of Chicago professor Gary Becker that was instrumental in transforming sin taxes into an accepted global health strategy. In particular, I focus on this network’s research on tobacco taxation, which was the first type of sin tax to gain acceptance in the global health field and later served as a model for excises on alcohol and sugar. I begin by showing how this research grew out of Chicago’s microeconomic tradition and Becker’s work in particular before examining how it radically transformed international tobacco control and the model of the smoker that underpins it. I conclude by reflecting on what this story can teach us about the wider history of the recent proliferation of micro-technologies in the fields of development and humanitarian aid.

You can find and read the publication here: https//limn.it/rational-sin/ .