Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Gas Tax and Family Formation 

The fifty-cent per gallon tax on gasoline proposed by John Tierney on today’s New York Times Op-Ed page strikes me as really, really terrible idea. (Note I haven’t read the column. I was told about it by Pat Kiernan on “In the Papers” this morning—the only way I know what’s on the Times editorial page ever since they started jamming their own opinion page’s signal.) It would make life more difficult for many Americans, create new spending opportunities for the pet projects of politicians and special interests and help elect more Democrats into office.

Since Tierney usually takes a somewhat libertarian approach to policy issues, I was surprised to hear that he was advocating a new tax. Tierney is said to argue that this tax would “fix everything”—provide revenue to shore up Social Security, improve the environment by discouraging people from driving and—for all I know—he may even argue that it will improve our health by encouraging us to ride bicycles and walk more often. But what makes Tierney think we can count on the government to spend the additional revenues from this tax the way he wants it to?

Certainly past performance doesn’t predict this. We know how these things work. New spending priorities emerge and come to dominate—think Iraq, Katrina and Rita. Special interests lobby for a share of new revenues, and politicians pander to constituents with local spending projects. Information about how the new revenues are actually being spent is too difficult for the public to get hold of, and this public ignorance allows for even greater mischief from the government, politicians and special interests.

It’s not just a case of the government taking our money promising one thing and spending it on another. Increased federal revenues means increased federal spending which means increased federal power. The Supreme Court long ago decided that the federal government is entitled to use its spending power to coerce states into adopting homogenized national policies that it would otherwise be prohibited from enforcing—the twenty-one year old drinking age is the most famous example. Anyone concerned about the increasing centralization of political power needs to be wary of anything that would give the federal government more money to spend.

It’s also political suicide for anyone who doubts we’d be better off with more people voting for Democratic candidates. By this time we all know what causes some states to vote for Republicans, right? Steve Sailer spelled it out for us half a year ago, and even coined the phrase to describe it—Affordable Family Formation. In states where it is easier to have a larger family—cheaper houses, with more land and good schools—people are more likely to vote Republican. Where these things are less easily available, people tend to vote Democrat.

A gas tax making life in less-densely populated areas—which generally includes a lot of driving—more expensive, would help tip the balance against affordable family formation. And as family formation became less affordable, more people would choose the pleasures of urban life. For not yet very-well explained reasons, people who make this choice tend to vote for Democrats. In short, raising the price of gasoline would likely diminish the production of Republican voters.

This probably seems like a cynical political analysis. Who am I to say that we should give up the environmental benefits of a gas tax in order to encourage Republican voting? Let me put it differently. Right now, a lot of people are engaged in the pursuit of happiness by having families in a nice house with a yard and a decent school in the neighborhood. The gasoline tax would impose a fine against that pursuit, punishing and discouraging people who want families, houses and yards. It would be a government policy against the way of life of many Americans, social engineering against family formation.

I know there are people out there who don’t believe that people respond to incentives like this. But if you think that folks getting married, moving out to the suburbs, having large families and voting Republican won’t be deterred by higher gas prices, however, you need to explain how you think increasing gas prices will protect the environment by discouraging people from driving. Either it changes behavior on the margins or it doesn’t.

A better argument is that maybe I’m over-estimating the effects of a fifty-cent per gallon tax. It might have some tiny increase in the cost of family formation but a much larger benefit for the environment, I suppose. Maybe. I guess. Sailer only invented the affordable family formation metric six-months ago, so I doubt anyone has done the research to figure it out. When they have, maybe it will be time to consider the proposal I heard was in the Times today. But not until then.