What is the first example of a Western government passing a sin or vice tax -- that is, a tax passed primarily to discourage consumption of certain goods due to moral, not economic, concerns? Protective tariffs and mercantilist policies therefore don't count.

States have a long history of directly regulating consumption, but I'm curious about when states first began to indirectly regulate consumption. The first formal treatment of using taxes to reduce "externalities" that I know of comes from Arthur C. Pigou in 1920, but obviously statesmen had long known that taxes have the power to discourage targeted behaviors. I think that Hamilton's Whiskey tax was overwhelmingly a fiscal measure, but he was at least aware that it had a moral angle:

The consumption of ardent spirits particularly, no doubt very much on account of their cheapness, is carried on to an extreme, which is truely to be regretted, as well in regard to the health and morals, as to the economy of the community.

So I'm inclined not to count the Whiskey tax. What is the first example of a Western government passing a tax primarily to discourage "immoral" behavior?

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    I don't think its unreasonable to count the Whiskey tax, as the "moral" character of the thing being taxed was a large part of why it was a politically palatable tax in the first place.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:09
  • @T.E.D.: True, that's why whiskey was targeted first. But Hamilton's motive was to get the country's finances in order, not to reduce alcohol consumption. I'd be more inclined to accept the whiskey tax if I thought the majority of debate around it concerned whiskey per se and not the legitimacy of taxation. That strikes me as qualitatively different than the way recent debates around cigarette and soda taxes have gone down.
    – two sheds
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:23
  • @twosheds most if not all taxes are first and foremost intended to stuff government coffers. The excuses/reasons for introducing them are then cooked up to sell the idea to the population.
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2016 at 7:09

2 Answers 2


Not sure they were the first laws primarily motivated by "moral outrage" but the the effects on the poor of cheap, low quality gin certainly was a factor in passing the British Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 - cf Hogarth's Gin Lane and Beer Street.


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    Thanks! The Wikipedia page says the 1729 Gin Act raised retail taxes on gin to 5 shillings per gallon, so that's the frontrunner so far.
    – two sheds
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:43
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    You're probably right, I suppose I was looking at Acts that "stuck" - a lot were repealed due to public unrest/rise of contaminated gin. But you're right, that wasn't your question, so 1729 probably leads the field at the moment!
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 19, 2014 at 16:58
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    I found an article on the history of sin taxes that seems to confirm your answer. The British had an early excise on alcohol, but that was mainly fiscal. The gin tax was the first time a tax was used in response to a moral panic, according to this guy: csun.edu/~hceco001/Researchpapers/Researchpapers/sintaxes.pdf
    – two sheds
    Nov 21, 2014 at 2:15

The issuance of fines or taxes on luxury goods is part of the general phenomenon known as sumptuary laws. The Wikipedia article gives a good history. Also, note that Roman censors had the power to fine anybody they thought was living in a luxurious or dissipated manner. The Romans, in fact, made a huge deal out of enforcing puritanical morality on their citizens. Julius Caesar and Octavius both did stints as censors and used to brag about the heads they knocked for excessive luxury.

  • Excellent! Splendid! I knew I had reservations about the proposed analytical framework, but I couldn't articulate them I think you've hit the mark.
    – MCW
    Nov 19, 2014 at 19:41
  • I linked to sumptuary laws in the question, but I wasn't counting them because I think of them as reinforcing hierarchies, not discouraging unwanted consumption. Also I only ever read about how poorly they were enforced. But sumptuary laws are certainly a good answer.
    – two sheds
    Nov 19, 2014 at 22:33
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    @Oldcat The senate made Caesar not only a censor, but Pontifex Maximus, a Lupercus, a Flamen, and pretty much everything else. Suetonius, Vita Divi Iuli, "not only did he accept excessive honors, such as an uninterrupted consulship, the dictatorship for life, and the censorship of public morals, as well as the forename Imperator, the surname of Pater Patriae ['Father of his Country'], a statue among those of the kings, and a raised couch in the orchestra [at the theater]; but he also..." Nov 20, 2014 at 19:24
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    @Oldcat Well, I don't know what "lists" you are using, but the reality was Caesar was given EVERY title in the city. For example, if you read the account of Dio Cassius, it says "And they voted that Caesar should be sole censor for life". In other words, not only was Caesar a censor, he was made the ONLY censor in the city. Nov 20, 2014 at 19:56
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    @Oldcat He was SOLE CENSOR FOR LIFE according to Dio Cassius. Instead of trying to nitpick my answers with uninformed skepticism, why don't you do something constructive, like answer the question. I gave you two primary sources already: Dio Cassius and Suetonius. What do you want me to do, deliver an ancient marble stele with "CAESAR CENSORINUS PERPETUUS" engraved in it to your home? Nov 20, 2014 at 20:05

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