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A sugary-sweet lesson on consumer freedom

(By Jim Martin) – Liberals’ latest assault on consumer freedom could soon target the packet of sugar you put in your morning coffee. Like most big-government power plays, the main objective appears to be fattening government coffers at taxpayers expense.

As crazy as it sounds, the scheme to tax sugar and artificially inflate the price of food was summed up in a February editorial in The Washington Post. The reasoning goes something like this: If we tax sugar to the point that it’s too expensive to afford, then overweight consumers will be forced to eat fresh apples instead of apple pies.

Under the veil of fighting obesity, The Post reveals the true objective, stating, “the federal Treasury would benefit from the tax revenue.”

Notwithstanding the obvious issues with the government’s money-grab, the nanny-state mentality or the widespread economic harm caused by raising food prices, there is one big problem with this logic. Sugar is a staple of the human diet that has been consumed safely for 2,000 years, and the last time U.S. consumers couldn’t find it, everyone suffered.

Americans old enough to remember World War II (like yours truly) probably remember five years of sugar rationing, which is celebrating a dubious 72nd anniversary this month.

Rationing didn’t just mean Americans had to sacrifice the occasional chocolate bar or dessert. Sugar is a bulking agent, preservative and tenderizer found in nearly everything, so when America had to ration sugar, it also meant having less bread, yogurt, cereal, jams and spices, too.

We learned a pretty important lesson back then: They’re called staple crops for a reason, and without access to them people are punished through higher prices and unnecessary shortages.

That liberals are so eager to dictate to Americans what they should and should not do is nothing new, but regulating the food staples in our cupboards is crossing a line that puts America eerily on par with nations such as Soviet-era Russia.

Of course, on the political turf where the government-knows-best crowd plants its flag, there typically exists a free-market alternative that doesn’t impose new taxes or trample consumer rights.

In the case of sugar, there is no free market. If one were created, though, a lot of the left’s complaints about sugar surpluses and prices would take care of themselves.

Right now, foreign countries heavily subsidize sugar production and largely dictate both price and supply. Sometimes, that can mean massive overproduction and really cheap sugar, but other times, foreign governments’ grip on supply leads to unforeseeable shortages and rapid price spikes.

Brazil is the biggest offender. With more than $2 billion in sugar subsidies a year and new government handouts being routinely announced, Brazil has gained an OPEC-like stranglehold on the export market. Today, it controls half of all sugar trade.

Its biggest competitors, India and Thailand, are so desperate to keep pace that they have recently inflated their own subsidies, further distorting the market.

Here at home, we’ve responded to foreign subsidization by erecting protective tariffs that aim to insulate domestic farmers and consumers from wild price swings. However, tariffs aren’t good for consumers, food manufacturers or our trading relationships with other countries.

Enter Rep. Ted Yoho, Florida Republican, who has a better idea. Mr. Yoho’s goal is a global sugar-subsidy cease-fire, where prices would reflect supply-and-demand realities, where the most efficient producers would thrive and where consumers would no longer be held hostage to the whims of governments.

His resolution, known as the “zero-for-zero” sugar policy, would eliminate U.S. sugar tariffs — an enticing offer to major sugar exporters — but only when other nations drop their subsidies and let a free market form.

Since U.S. producers have lower production costs than most foreign producers, the Yoho resolution would strengthen our ability to produce an important staple crop at home without depending on undependable foreign suppliers.

Policy remedies like “zero-for-zero” are the answer to all kinds of policy woes because they put consumers first, they demand free and fair trade across borders, and they keep greedy government hands from dipping into the sugar bowl.

While our tax-and-spend, nanny-state friends on the left may not like it, “zero-for-zero” would give American consumers another thing to smile about each morning with their cup of coffee.

(Jim Martin is chairman of the 60 Plus Association. This column was originally published in the Washington Times on May 1, 2014)