The worst knock against a gas tax is that it is, well, a tax. Who likes that? But with soaring deficits and a war to pay for, taxes are not an option they're a necessity. The only relevant question is, Which taxes? The case for a gas tax is a straightforward one. Gas prices are strikingly lower in America than anywhere else in the world; such taxes are relatively easy to collect; since an overwhelming majority of Americans drive, few avoid the tax; and by adding a cost to the wanton consumption of gasoline, you actually encourage conservation, accelerate fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, cut traffic and help wean Americans off the oil that requires the U.S. to be so intimately involved in that wonderful cesspool of rival hatreds, the Middle East. So what's not to like?
The idea is so obviously a good one that in their recent absurd bickering over who is responsible for higher gas prices, neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry has gone near it. That would take a perspicacity most politicians lack. It's worth recalling that even Bush's chief economic adviser, Gregory Mankiw, once supported it. During the golden five minutes of budget surpluses in the late 1990s, Mankiw favored raising gas taxes as a way to reduce income taxes. Such a policy mix, he believed, "would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads and reduced risk of global warming all without jeopardizing long-term fiscal solvency. This may be the closest thing to a free lunch that economics has to offer."
So why is it so unpopular? Some say it's inherently regressive that it affects the poor more than the rich. In reality, it tends to affect the middle class more than anyone else, especially those in the suburbs with more than one car. The truly needy tend to consume less gas than their middle-class compatriots. Others say it penalizes those in remote and rural areas. So what? Very few taxes are perfect, and our electoral system with its over-representation of big agricultural states in the Senate already pampers the rural. (I'd gladly exchange a gas-tax hike for abolition of agricultural subsidies. Any takers in Iowa?)
Some conservatives say it's antithetical to the American Dream. Hooey. Conservatism in America rightly emphasizes personal responsibility alongside freedom. You can't have one without the other. And using a car affects not just you but many others. When your driving habits lead to higher levels of pollution, when your ownership of a gas-inhaling 2-ton SUV puts others on the road at risk, when traffic jams drastically reduce the country's productivity (as well as make radio shock jocks into millionaires), don't you think you might give a little back in return? To paraphrase the President, can't we shift from a philosophy of "If it feels good, do it" to one of responsibility?
The real reason so many Americans hate gas taxes is that they see them. The government can eat away at your life with payroll taxes, but because they are usually deducted before you get to see your paycheck, you don't notice. But the price of gas is broadcast on big placards across the country. When it goes up, eyebrows rise a notch. But that's a good thing! The government has to tax you somehow. Isn't it better to shift taxation to places where people notice it, so they can demand accountability? The gas tax is therefore a win-win conservative-liberal synthesis. It cuts the deficit, helps the environment and keeps the government fiscally honest and accountable.
Let me add one further reason, and it's a simple one. We're at war. So far, the Bush Administration has refused to ask for a general sacrifice to pay for this effort. But that leads to a sense that we're not all involved, that we do not all owe the troops our support. More important, the war is about the Middle East. A long-term strategy to protect us from constant involvement in that region would include greater energy independence. A gas tax helps pay for our current struggle and helps us avoid future ones. Why not therefore a wartime gas tax of a dollar a gallon? If we do not owe it to our fellow citizens, to the environment, to greater fuel efficiency, can we at least owe it to the troops? Or is that minimal level of personal sacrifice too much to ask of ourselves?