How to End All Transportation Subsidies

August 18, 2011 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Libertarians like to howl about subsidies to public transportation, but for some mysterious reason they say little about subsidies to highways (or if they do, they use phony numbers). In the real world, American urban rail transit systems and highways are subsidized at about the same level, 50%. Urban bus systems, which libertarians always prefer to rail, require more subsidy, about 72% of their operating expenses.

In a perfect world, we would eliminate all subsidies. But to have a real free market, we would have to find a way to create a level playing field, one where both real and perceived costs to users can easily be compared. Because riders see the cost of using public transit up front, when they put their money in the farebox, they would have to do the same when they choose to drive their own car.

An article on the front page of the August 11, 2011, New York Times shows a way that could be done. The title gives it away: “In Auto Test in Europe, Meter ticks Off Miles, and fee to Driver.” It tells the story of a Dutchman, Mr. van Dedem, who volunteered for the test of a new device, similar to a taxi meter. The meter does more than charge for distance driven:

The meter also factors in the cost to society in the form of pollution, traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on the roads. . .

[The system} also takes into account of a car’s fuel efficiency, the time of day and the route. (Driving on busier thoroughfares costs more than driving on less-traveled roads). At the end of each month, the vehicle’s owner would receive a bill. . .

Not surprising, watching the cost of driving mount as you drive affects the choice of how to travel. The Times wrote:

As Sander van Dedem recalled watching the charges tick up every 10 seconds on the dashboard meter on the way to the airport, he resolved to try public transportation next time.

That is what it would take to create a level playing field where cars and public transportation could compete fairly in an unsubsidized free market. So is that what conservatives should advocate?

No, at least not this conservative. Even though I must drive frequently between Washington and my home in Cleveland (the only train arrives and departs Cleveland in the middle of the night), I refuse to get “E-Z Pass,” waiting in line and fumbling with change at the toll booths instead. Why? Because E-Z Pass would allow the government to track my movements, and I don’t want it to be able to do that. If the government could see how often I go to the bakery, they would probably want to hit me with a “High Fat Diet Tax,” which really is in the plan for liberal America.

Here again we see the difference between libertarians and conservatives. Libertarians are ideologues. Their approach to any issue is, “The answer is a free market. Now, what’s the question?”

In contrast, conservatives are pragmatic. We ask, “What has worked in the past?” Human nature being what it is, no solution to any problem is perfect. But before we dump what works OK for some promise of perfection, let’s think about the downsides. Could we end up making things worse? Do we really think it is better letting the government track every mile we drive than having some subsidies, so long as the subsidies don’t favor one competitor over others?

The art of governing is seldom a matter of choosing good over bad. In the real world, it is almost always a choice between one and another mix of good and bad features. As a conservative, I would rather keep some subsidies for all transportation modes, adjusting them so they create a level playing field, than create a level playing field with no subsidies but with Big Brother in my car. I’m sure the feds would next program their damn meter so it locked all my car doors anytime it got within 500 feet of a bakery.