by Ari Armstrong
The article below originally appeared in the May 27, 2004, edition of Boulder Weekly.
FasTracks, say its critics, is too expensive. It won't reduce traffic congestion much. Buses are cheaper and more flexible. Toll lanes reduce congestion more effectively, and rail commuting isn't especially fast or environmentally friendly.
For now, I'll leave the debate over these specifics to others. I want to address the broad moral and economic issues involved with such a plan.
By now you've heard the details. In the multi-county RTD tax district, the transit tax would increase from 0.6 percent to 1.0 percent on most sales. These taxes would support building 119 miles of new rail, along with new Park-n-Rides and bus services, at a total capital cost of $4.7 billion.
The FasTracks tax is unjust. Hopefully, a basic moral principle you maintain in your personal life is that it's wrong to force somebody else to pay for something for your own benefit. FasTracks would sacrifice this principle to the vote.
Perhaps two-thirds of eligible voters will turn out at the polls this November, and, if FasTracks passes, it might pass by, say, 60 percent. That means around 40% of eligible voters might approve the plan. Conversely, around 60 percent of eligible voters would never have volunteered to pay the tax, and around 25 percent of eligible voters would have directly expressed unwillingness to pay the tax.
Whether a majority of the community supports the tax will be impossible to determine. It will also be entirely irrelevant. Normally, we do not think a majority should violate the rights of the minority. For example, we would never say the majority has the right to enslave, kill, arbitrarily imprison or silence the minority.
I think the exact same rationale applies to the rights of minorities -- and particularly individuals -- to decide how their earnings are spent. If we are to live fundamentally autonomous, self-directed, goal-oriented lives, nothing is more important than the choice of how we direct the resources we earn through our skill and effort.
Typically, we do not excuse the forcible taking of wealth because of the taker's good intentions. And make no mistake: If you decline to pay the tax on an exchange within the district, you will be escorted to jail, and, if you resist, you will be killed. There's nothing about a vote that somehow magically removes the threat and use of violence against human beings.
FasTracks also screws the poor. A sales tax generally is regressive in that poorer people usually spend a greater percentage of their income on taxed goods. Wealthier people invest more and also have a greater ability to buy outside the tax region. And FasTracks redistributes wealth from poor non-riders to wealthy riders.
FasTracks.org claims, "FasTracks will create thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of new spending in the economy each year during the construction phase." That is simply a lie told to lure economic illiterates. These resources would merely be redirected from jobs provided on the free market to jobs funded by the tax. Because of the inefficiencies of the government-run program, the net result would be a loss of wealth.
That's $4.7 billion not being spent on various other services and products. To offer some idea of just how much money that is, Ralph Shnelvar, former Libertarian candidate for governor, points out that amount of money could buy 23,000 homes that cost $200,000 each.
The supporters of FasTracks argue it will bring all sorts of economic benefits. But if that's true, why does it need to be subsidized? Generally, we recognize that businesses unable to make enough money from voluntary buyers just aren't providing something enough people want. If FasTracks is really such a great idea, then riders will be willing to pay enough to fund it.
Critics might point out other modes of transportation are subsidized, too. However, roads are more self-funding through the gasoline tax. Besides, the appropriate response is to eliminate the subsidies for those other systems, not increase the amount of economic distortion and political force.
The only other plausible justification for economic intervention is the concept of the "free rider." A common example is national defense. If a benefit is available to all, regardless of who pays, some "free riders" will attempt to hold out and let everyone else carry the tab.
However, the free-rider problem is not relevant to FasTracks. First, those who vote against the project cannot be said to be free riders, because they are voting against the imposition of the tax on everyone. Second, and more important, rail service is a benefit mostly to specific riders, not to those who never ride. Rail riders always pay a set amount for the service. Thus, the best approach is simply to charge fees high enough to cover the costs of the project. Of course, rail offers some benefits to non-riders, but the same can be said for every productive venture.
If FasTracks is such a good idea, let its organizers make money from willing buyers of rail transportation. Otherwise, TaxTracks is both unjust and economically destructive.