Our faithful reader and frequent correspondent “KevinT” asks, in reference to our article about the word socialism,

What caused Dr. Boli to ignore the fuel tax that pays at least in some small part for highways? Dare I suggest “ignorance”?

This is a very reasonable question. What caused Dr. Boli not to insert a long digression about how the taxes that fund our roads are calculated was not wishing to divert the discussion into one of the endless debates about whether this or that use of government is “socialism.” Once again, in Dr. Boli’s opinion, the mere existence of those endless debates is proof enough that the word socialism is useless. Instead, we can simply say what we mean. Is it good to pay for highways this way? Should more highways be toll roads, so that the cost is more directly visible to the user? Should mass transit be a higher priority so that the poor have a better chance of getting to work if they cannot afford a reliable car? Or, on the other hand, should all highways as well as transit authorities be privatized, so that the free market rather than politics can decide where the money should be spent? These are questions we can debate in clear terms without resorting to name-calling, and the healthy disagreement would sharpen our minds and sanitize our politics.

But KevinT asks specifically about fuel taxes. So let us imagine a hypothetical parallel. Suppose that tomorrow your government took over all the grocery stores and started giving the food away free.

“But that’s socialism!” cries that man in the checked suit.

No, it is not, reply the populist politicians who rammed this new program through the legislature. It is perfectly analogous to what we do with our highways, because we have instituted a new tax that is calculated according to the body weight of the citizen, and this tax will be used to pay for the free public groceries. So you see that the people who use groceries most are the ones who will pay the most. It is true that fat poor people will find themselves at a disadvantage; but that is also exactly analogous to the way we fund our highways, where the rich who can afford the latest fuel-efficient hybrid pay much less in tax than the poor who are trying to make a twenty-year-old Grand Marquis limp along for another year.

Now, should we debate whether our hypothetical free-groceries-for-everyone program is socialism? Or would it not be more productive to confine our debate to whether it is a good idea?


  1. Dr. Boli is right: roads are poorly priced. But he is wrong: state highways, at least, are priced, even if it isn’t obvious. We pay by the gallon, not by the mile we drive.

    The purpose of prices is to give feedback to users and producers. Gas taxes provide such feedback. Most state highways are funded primarily out of such gas taxes, tolls, and similar excise fees. Most local roads are not. That’s why many road supporters want to switch from fuel taxes to mileage-based user fees.

    But how things are priced is different from whether or not something is “socialism.” If socialism means government ownership, then the roads are socialist. But the vehicles using them are not. I can imagine a system in which the roads are private, but getting them properly priced will do more for making them efficient and equitable than privatizing them, so that’s what I aim for.

  2. Fred says:

    Sometimes I think we ought to get rid of taxes altogether and run the entire country off the fees from a giant amusement park. You can make no end of money off of roller coasters and merch.

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