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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2004


On the gas tax
Mickey Kaus and the Washington Post have criticized the ad mentioned below, not for its style, but its content. The ad references a 1994 Kerry proposal to impose a 50-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. The Post makes the valid and eminently predictable point that raising gas prices at that point would have lowered gas consumption:
Given the hidden costs of high fuel consumption -- pollution, urban sprawl, time wasted in traffic -- it can be argued that this country has paid a high price for not having higher fuel prices. A price rise now hurts people all the more because they have made choices -- living in distant suburbs, driving large cars -- predicated on low fuel prices. That fact, to no small degree, is the fault of this administration, as well as those that preceded it, for not having had the courage to wean the country off low-priced fuel when it would have been easier to do so.
Aside from the fact that blaming Bush for people living in suburbs is the height of absurdity, a lot of what they say is true. But is it the government's job to "wean" us off of low priced fuel? Or are we adults, able to make our own decisions? This is an issue a little closer to my heart, having just driven a total of 3200 miles in a 15-year-old car. While driving, I also noticed quite a few other people who would suffer from any increase in gas prices.

Rural America, for one--the larger towns in Western Montana tend to be spaced about 100 miles apart, and that's closer than they are in Eastern Montana or North Dakota. An increase in gas prices hurts someone who needs to get from Missoula to Bozeman on a regular basis far more than it does your standard suburban SUV driver. I also noticed quite a few large trucks on the road, hauling all manner of goods across the continent. What does a major hike in gas taxes do to the cost of shipping, and thus to the cost of pretty much all the goods we buy?

In a social engineering sense, it may well be preferable to lower gas consumption. More importantly, it is almost certainly a desirable thing from a national-security standpoint. But the fact is, the people want cheap fuel, and the people tend to get what they want. Until there is a cheap alternative to gasoline, people will keep using it, and ads like Bush's will continue to be effective. Bush's strategy for reducing dependance on foreign oil, encouraging the development of alternatives, is a far better one than raising gas prices--when it comes to the American people, using a carrot rather than a stick is almost always a better option.

This points out the flaw in Kaus' reasoning. He writes that "the Republican gas tax attack gleefully tries to make Kerry pay for his rare moments of political courage," as if this were a bad thing. But if the only things Kerry is courageous over are things the American people hate, then isn't that a completely legitimate target?

The bottom line is that politicians ought to be careful about insisting that Americans "take their medicine," or attempting to "wean them off" anything. Americans tend to feel that they are perfectly capable of deciding where to live, what to drive, and what to power their engines with, without any help from the government. That's why Bush's ad is legitimate and effective, both at the shallower "I don't want to pay more for gasoline" level, and at the deeper "I don't want John Kerry telling me how to get to work" level.
Agree, disagree, have more information on the topic? Please, feel free to leave a comment. No profanity!

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