Leave it to a legal scholar to ask: Is a stigma a tax? If so, can government act legitimately to remove that stigma?

To legal scholar Cass Sunstein, the answer is yes. Certain social norms, Sunstein explains, such as wearing a seatbelt in Hungary or carrying a gun in Sunstein’s neighborhood, act as taxes on particular behaviors. Norms that encourage certain behaviors are, analogously, subsidies.

Sunstein faces an uphill battle making this case against the backdrop of a liberal tradition of individual choice and respect for personal preferences. But he may find allies in conservatives and liberals alike.

This lecture was originally delivered at AEI in November 1996.

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