Most arguments in favor of raising gasoline taxes hinge on issues usually considered “liberal”: environmental protection, promotion of alternative energy sources (even if those sources are more costly than traditional sources), and promotion of mass transit networks.
For a conservative to make the case for higher gas taxes might seem quite strange, therefore–especially at a time when the national average price of a gallon of gas is nearly 30 cents more than a year ago (as of 1/17/2012). And gas prices probably will not be declining any time soon, if ever, as Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that its price goal for a barrel of crude oil is now at least $100, a full third higher than their stated goal in 2008.
Nevertheless, the conservative case for higher gas taxes is straightforward and based on two fundamental principles: first, governmental intervention in the marketplace should be limited, and second, government services should be paid for by those using the services as directly as possible.
Currently, most if not all roads in America are no longer financed purely by revenue raised by federal and state gas taxes. Thus, funds from the general treasury, primarily derived from income and sales taxes, finance an increasing portion of our nation’s roadways.
As a result, the roads are built partially on the financial backs of people who do not use them or use them disproportionately little, and the government essentially is subsidizing one transportation sector over others. Many conservatives oppose government subsidies for mass transit and other “pet” projects, but the current subsidation of roadways is a classic example of the government picking winners and losers.
And the government interference in the market does not stop there. With roadways and car-based transportation favored over other forms of transportation, many municipal governments have passed ordinances requiring businesses to provide a certain number of parking spots.
So what would governmental non-interference in the transporatation marketplace look like and how would it work?
First, states would gradually raise their gas taxes so that eventually those taxes would generate 100 percent of the revenue forecasted to be necessary to pay for proposed new roads and roadway repair. Second, both federal and state gas taxes should be clearly stated on all gas pumps. Another conservative principle of taxation is transparency.
As gas prices increased to represent the real cost of road-based transportation, consumers would adjust through increased use of car-pooling, biking, and yes mass transit. Businesses would be freed to use their real estate more as they please rather than providing parking regulated by the city.
In the short term, a raise in gas taxes would regrettably be painful for many people. But in the long run, this truly conservative position would be helpful to all. Consumers will know the true cost of the roads they use, and our nation will be better prepared for when gas prices significantly increase due to global shortage and a structural increase in demand.
Finally, with the state governments no longer directing revenue from income and sales taxes to roadways, states should be in a position to reduce those taxes for everybody. What conservative, indeed what American, could oppose that?