Voter's Lament: Colorado Issues '04
by Ari Armstrong, October 13, 2004
It's a depressing election season in Colorado. We face two statewide and two metro-area ballot issues that seek to expand political control over the economy. If all four measures pass -- as I fear they will -- the political sector will further overtake transportation, health care, energy production, and the arts.
The statewide issues are Amendment 35, concerning a tobacco tax directed toward health programs, and Amendment 37, concerning energy production. Those in the multi-county metro tax district also face Referenda 4A, FasTracks (which I've discussed previously), and 4B, the Denver Metropolitan Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
Three of the measures involve the forced redistribution of wealth. One of those, Amendment 35, also seeks to use tax policy for social engineering. The fourth measure, Amendment 37, seeks to force large energy producers to generate at least 10% of their power from "renewable" sources by 2015.
The three measures to redistribute wealth would violate the individual rights and economic liberties of Coloradans who do not wish to voluntarily fund the services in question. People who don't use light rail, arts facilities, and politicized health services should not be forced to fund those things. The particular way physical force is applied to redistribute wealth is through the sales tax. If people wish to continue to buy local goods, they must pay the tax for the services they may or may not wish to use, or face criminal penalties. The state requires sellers to enforce collection of the tax, or the sellers, too, face legal penalties.
Amendment 37 would violate the rights of Colorado consumers and suppliers of energy who do not find it advantageous to trade for the types of energy specified by the legal proposal. The government should have absolutely no role in energy production, and the proper move is to figure out how to get government out of the energy business.
Of course, government has a legitimate interest in protecting people from pollution. But the economic interventionism of Amendment 37 is not an appropriate way to address pollution. Besides, Amendment 37 would have little impact on air quality relative to cost.
Right now, alternative sources of energy usually cost more. If production costs are higher, either those costs are passed along to consumers or less money is available for research and development.
I'm all for alternative energy. I look forward to the day when people can produce much of their own energy and buy extra from decentralized providers. While economies of scale require very large energy production plants presently, new sources of energy will allow more dispersed production. Of course, the manufacture of various energy-producing equipment will continue to benefit from large-scale economic organization, though I expect a free market, if we can achieve such, will result in robust competition in producing energy capital.
I hope alternative energy sources are widely available and inexpensive by 2015, the final target date of Amendment 37. Indeed, I hope much more than 10% of our energy comes from wind, solar, etc. But until technology advances, trying to force the market only results in higher costs, less efficiency, and lower standards of living.
Right now, people who are willing to pay more for alternative sources of energy are perfectly free to do so and try to persuade others to do so. The supporters of Amendment 37, though, want to force energy producers and consumers to do what they are unwilling to do independently.
As a side note, some people claim that industrial hemp, which is currently outlawed, might be used as a biomass fuel. I don't know whether that would be economically viable, but I do know that people should be left free to find out.
Let us return to FasTracks. The proper goal is to move transportation to a free market in which consumers pay the full costs of their transportation use. Taxi services should be open to competition, rather than limited by political protectionism. Jitneys (paying carpools) should be re-legalized. Mass transit should be sold to private companies, not subsidized.
Where demand exists for light rail service, rail can be built privately and run at a profit. The fact that most rail today requires massive subsidies proves that not enough people want to ride rail to justify the expense.
Given the relatively cost-effective alternatives of buses, toll lanes, and private transit, the fact that light rail is the leading proposal demonstrates a bias against automobiles. If people want to pay more to subsidize their own biases, that's up to them, but they ought not force other people to subsidize their biases.
The tobacco tax, to restate, is doubly bad. First, it's inherently unjust and bad government policy to use tax policy for purposes of social engineering. Second, the tax is dedicated to the expansion of health welfare, an illegitimate use of government. If you want to spend your own money and efforts to persuade others to stop smoking, go ahead and do that. But keep the state out of it. It's not the state's role to be anybody's mother.
Perhaps most popular is the cultural district, supported even by some (otherwise) fiscally-conservative Republicans. Unfortunately, the people least likely to benefit from the tax are also most likely to suffer from higher taxes and least likely to vote in the election. Sales taxes are, after all, regressive. I'm all for voluntary efforts to make cultural events more accessible to the public. But the arts do not justify the use of force to redistribute wealth. Besides that, art subsidies automatically require that bureaucrats decide where the money goes. Art criticism is simply not an appropriate purpose of government.
In general, new, cleaner sources of energy are good. Art is good. Reliable transportation is good. Healthy living is good. But good ends cannot justify means that violate individual rights, including economic rights. Those who want clean energy, art, transportation, and health are perfectly free to pursue those things in a free market. To the extent that government economic interventionism has hampered voluntary exchange, the appropriate goal is to achieve free markets. It's disconcerting to see so many Coloradans rush to use political force to pursue their values. All four measures under discussion would to some extent violate people's fundamental human rights.
What about the other four state-wide measures? I'm voting "no" on Amendment 34, concerning construction liability, but mostly because it seeks to add language to the state's constitution. I am undecided about whether the state legislature should limit liability for housing construction. On one hand, we want people to be able to sue for gross negligence and fraud. On the other hand, we want home buyers to take due responsibility when buying a home and not engage in frivolous suits. I've already discussed Amendment 36, which is bad because it seeks to impose retroactive law and diminish regional balances of power. I don't care about Referendum A or B.
This election season, there's nothing good to vote for. I'm not even aware of any good local issue in the state; all I've seen are various proposals to raise taxes for dubious purposes. (Some local officials have caught on to the strategy of raising taxes for things voters like, such as fire fighting and police, so that officials can spend more non-dedicated tax money on other things.) There might be a candidate for local office or state legislature here or there worth supporting, but for the most part voting is a matter of trying to figure out who is least-bad. Nevertheless, I will go to the polls and try to limit the damage to economic liberty. I encourage readers to do to same.