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According to this article France’s ‘Solidarity Tax’ on air travel is a major source of funding for health programs in the world’s poorest countries:

Just days before the presentation of Air France KLM’s new strategy, the French Court of Auditors backed the airline by criticising the Solidarity Tax on air travel, which it says distorts competition.

“It is clear that this solidarity mechanism, which has no link to the air travel sector, has lost its ideals, that the French example has not been followed, penalising French air traffic. Now is the time to reconsider its objectives and its relevance,” the report said.

Of course, there are some general taxes (e.g. VAT) that are not targeted to a obtain a related benefit (e.g. like using road taxes for building and maintenance of roads). However, in this case, air travel has a tax that is used for something that looks completely unrelated.

Question: Why does France tax its air travel companies to obtain money for something that does not related at all with air traveling?

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    A valid question but seems predicated on the idea that what is taxed should somehow be directly related to what it's being spent on...which isn't the case at all most of the time. In other words, I think the answer is mainly "that's how taxes work" – user1530 Aug 3 '17 at 21:07
  • Euractiv is a lobbyist. France (and a few other countries) set this up under Chirac to fund Unitaid, which fights TB, Malaria, and HIV in poor countries. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 3 '17 at 21:33
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    I'm not sure if this applies internationally, but in my home country (Germany) this (i.e. not paying for a specific service) is literally the definition of "tax". As soon as you pay for a specific outcome it's not a tax anymore, it is a fee. This has legal implications - e.g. public TV broadcasting in Germany is financed via a fee instead of taxes, so that the parliament cannot cut of funding for journalism they do not like (unlike tax money the allocation of the fee is not subject to the parliament's budget approval). – user10415 Aug 4 '17 at 10:25
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In that case, the proceeds are earmarked for Unitaid because it is an international initiative (together with 10 other countries). Otherwise, by law, taxes cannot be earmarked for specific purposes in France (with very few exceptions).

Reasons to earmark revenue from a tax to fund something apparently unrelated include:

  • Making a tax easy to collect. This tax is much more difficult to evade than, say, income tax and the state does not need to deal with a low of paperwork or collect this tax from each taxpayer, airlines are doing it. And they had everything in place to collect different taxes and fees as there are a bunch of those already.
  • Using the tax burden to create incentives, for example discouraging travel or making flying less attractive than other modes of transportation. Whether the proceeds are earmarked for some environmental programme, for something else entirely or simply flow to the state budget is not crucial, the fact the tax distorts prices is.
  • Ensuring a stable revenue stream, less sensitive to changes in political priorities. Amending the law or stepping out of the system to scrap the tax entirely would always be possible but it's a lot more visible and less expedient than simply reducing this or that line of the yearly budget.
  • Some indirect notion of fairness. For example, you could consider that flying uses up a lot of natural resources (fossil fuel and carbon budget) and that people who fly are generally wealthier so it's fair to force them to help poorer people.
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With few exceptions, taxes collected by governments go into a 'general fund' and are not earmarked for 'related' activities. Gasoline taxes are not used for roads, alcohol taxes are not used for addictions, real estate taxes are not used for real estate. This is just following the general pattern.

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    In the US, gas taxes are used for roads...or at least, that's the intent (admittedly intent and reality don't always align). A lot of sin taxes are actually used to circumvent the drawbacks (tobacco taxes support anti-smoking campaigns, for example). And in WA state, Marijuana taxes were actually scheduled to go to certain programs: thenewstribune.com/news/local/marijuana/article130464479.html – user1530 Aug 3 '17 at 21:05
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    I'm only talking about reality. And if you read your last link you will find that only 60% of marijuana tax is earmarked, and it's earmarked for a variety of health-related programs, hardly any of which are directly related to marijuana. – DJClayworth Aug 3 '17 at 22:29
  • Agreed, though that doesn't change the fact that taxes do get earmarked at times for related programs. I guess we can quibble what 'few exceptions' means. – user1530 Aug 3 '17 at 22:59
  • @DJClayworth: Perhaps because there are few if any health issues directly related to marijuana? – jamesqf Aug 4 '17 at 6:13
  • Also in my country (Romania) some taxes are explicitly linked to a destination (tax roads to roads construction, tobacco and alcohol taxes to health investments etc.). I know that the money are mixed and real destination hard to track. However, I thought that any targeted tax (some industry, a specific category of products) should have at least a justification connected to what it is applied to (if you put someone to pay a tax, at least have a good story). – Alexei Aug 4 '17 at 6:46
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What taxes should be collected, and what things should be funded, don't necessarily align. They are different questions. For instance, a tax on cigarettes is designed to curb smoking. Whether an anti-smoking program is worth X doesn't change depending on much money was collected by smoking taxes (except insofar as that influences how much total money you have, and cynically because the success of the anti-smoking program will lower future tax revenue.)

As is, the reason for the solidarity tax is probably similar to the reason sales taxes are popular - they hit tourists in ways that income/property taxes don't. Taxing non-voters is always popular with voters.

  • While probably true for this particular tax...special/usage taxes are hardly universally "for non-voters". – user1530 Aug 4 '17 at 5:44
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The purpose of taxes is to fund the activities of government: this rarely relates to the activity being taxed

In the entire history of taxation there has been little relationship between the activity being taxed and the activities the taxes fund.

For example, for a large part of history, the principal activity taxes were spent on was war. What do you tax to pay for that? Governments have sought to raise money from things that are easy to tax. Two millennia ago the Romans had a tax on people (hence the biblical story where Joseph and Mary had to travel to be registered). One millennium ago, Britain's William the Conqueror had the entire country surveyed (the Domesday book is the record of this) so he could work out how much land, cattle and people were in it so he could tax them. Neither of these were about public services paid by hypothecated taxes: they were about raising as much money as the government could to fund its other activities.

Governments can go too far. The French Revolution was partially triggered because of the higher taxes proposed to cover the historic cost of funding the American fight against Britain. Again, the tax had nothing to do with the purpose of the spending.

Britain once had a tax on window area. Not because the government was providing light (street lights hadn't been invented yet) but because it is hard to evade a tax on a visible feature of your property (but you can brick up your windows, as many did to avoid it). Again, tax is unrelated to the government spend it funds.

There is a modern argument for hypothecated taxes. But it isn't a good argument. Hypothecated taxes are almost always a con on the public to make more superficially palatable that the government is taxing the public. Some in the UK are currently arguing for a special NHS tax to raise the money the health system needs. But this would fail as surely as the older national insurance did (supposedly a tax on income designed to cover pensions and social security but in reality a way to raise taxes on income without it being as visible as an increase in the headline rate of income tax). National insurance now bears little relation to the supposed uses it was intended to fund and many social services would be dramatically worse off if the hypothecation were strictly adhered to.

In summary, the key point about tax is to apply it to something that can reliably raise money for government. This rarely, if ever, has anything to do with the activities the spending is intended to be used for, nor should it.

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