Care to give the IRS a lift?

Or at least, your local state revenue service. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that many states are starting to turn to tracking technologies in an effort to more efficiently tax drivers for the upkeep of roads and highways:

The push comes as the country’s Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. Americans don’t buy as much gas as they used to. Cars get many more miles to the gallon. The federal tax itself, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high.

Clearly, roads need to be maintained, and that will usually cost coin. For while Rousseau may have said that the true citizen would, out of love for and investment in his republic, prefer to labor on the roads himself than merely shell out some cash, I suspect that very few of us would take to the highways today, high-visibility jacket in tow.

That tax has often come from the sale of gasoline, since the cars using the roads have run on liquefied and refined dead dinosaurs. As the high cost of gasoline and increases in car efficiency have depressed the growth of gas sales, and as the future may see more electric cars that use no gas whatsoever hit the highways, transportation departments are rightfully considering alternative options.

A mileage tax is among the proposed alternatives, where cars are fitted with a device that monitors how many miles have been driven, and you are taxed on that number. It is an extension of the gas tax principle that taxes should be tailored so as to have the people using a service pay for it. For that reason, the monitoring option has attracted the support of libertarians, including Reason Foundation’s vice president of policy, Adrian Moore, who the LAT quotes as explaining, ”This is not just a tax going into a black hole … People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

Urban planners and city officials also see great potential in the devices. New York City “transportation officials are seeking to develop a taxing device that would also be equipped to pay parking meter fees, provide “pay-as-you-drive” insurance, and create a pool of real-time speed data from other drivers that motorists could use to avoid traffic,” by including both location and speed tracking.

In the post-Snowden world, though, with more attention than ever being given to just how much data—and metadata—on us is out there, even seemingly innocuous governmental collection systems like these mileage counters immediately raise eyebrows. The CEO of True Mileage, which produces a barebones mileage counter, says “People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location…There have been some big mistakes in some of these state pilot programs. There are a lot less expensive and less intrusive ways to do this.” With the ACLU and other privacy groups, not to mention consumers being asked to participate in pilot programs, voicing concerns about the tracking, states may just go with the dumb counters.

Yet forgoing that additional information interferes with the principle driving the entire process—connecting taxation more directly to use. Should a state fit their citizen’s cars with monitors that lack a location tracking mechanism, any interstate road trip would be taxed at the same rate as intrastate travel, despite not using the roads those tax dollars are intended to fund. Should those monitors become prevalent one could hope that it would all average out, but high-travel states would collect disproportionately high taxes at the expense of their citizen’s driving destinations.

This small case study, regarding something as mundane as highway funding, may pull the curtain back on a certain inherent tension within libertarian thought. Libertarians favor a very individualistic taxation system where as much of the burden as possible is concentrated on the users. To impose an additional slight hike in the state income tax to pay for roads would be unjust, as it would require the metro rider to subsidize the driver’s travel preferences.

Yet the desire to individualize taxation effectively would seem to necessitate more and more intrusive monitoring systems, so that the state can assess who it should tax, for what. That monitoring raises substantial privacy concerns and exposes information about private habits to governmental access where it could easily be subject to abuse.

By seeking to dissolve the idea of collective responsibility for infrastructure, the obscuring anonymity of the crowd likewise dissolves and hollows out, exposing the individual, personally and in all their particularity, directly to the state.