Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Dangerous Seduction of Technocracy

I once shared Matt's opinion about the gasoline tax - that it was a good idea to raise it, no politician would dare do it, so finding some way to provide cover for them to do so would be smart.

But it's really not a good idea. First, unpopular-but-good-ideas can be made popular by good leadership. And, there are very good reasons why increasing the gas tax would be unpopular which are related to why it might actually not be such a great idea. Gasoline demand is highly inelastic. Even a giant increase in the tax would have limited impact on driving behavior. Public transit just isn't a viable option for great masses of the country. They don't have other options.

What's needed isn't a blue ribbon panel to provide political cover for politicians, what's needed is better leadership on these issues. A gas tax is a tiny band aid which won't really do anything but make people pay a lot more for gas. Long run it's possible that it'll improve political support for alternative transportation, but what would be better is having political leaders who would be trying to build support for alternative transportation - and providing it - instead of using a stick to try to beat people into taking trains which don't exist.

...adding, to be clear I think raising the gax tas is a good idea. If I were the Decider I'd stick on $3/gallon, at least until the people took to the streets and burned down my presidential palace. But rather than focusing on "what's good for them whether they know it or not" kind of policies, it's important to focus on policies which reduce the need for people to use gas. The kinds of land use changes which might result from a huge increase in the gas tax would take years and years to happen. Sure, people would over the course of a few years switch to more fuel efficient vehicles. But the primary reason the tax would be unpopular is that most people don't have other options. Start by providing them.