Right at the nadir of public opinion over the government’s abuse of surveillance power comes a fresh story about cars, black boxes, real-time location surveillance and government tax collectors. It forecasts a near future when private cars will be equipped with data recorders that tell the government where you are, how you’re driving, and how much you should pay in road usage taxes.
The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend on a new push for government to consider mandating the devices in all cars so that the tax man can “track every mile a motorist drives and transmit that information to bureaucrats…”
Oddly, the Times appears to use the story to drive some kind of wedge between the tea party and libertarians – two groups that, despite the blurring of their ideological boundaries at the edges, share a fair amount of overlap.
Libertarians have joined environmental groups in lobbying to allow government to use the little boxes to keep track of the miles you drive, and possibly where you drive them — then use the information to draw up a tax bill.
The tea party is aghast. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply concerned, too, raising a variety of privacy issues.
Something sounds slightly…off. Libertarians for a surveillance state and innovative taxes? It will take more effort for media to redefine terms like “libertarian” if the intent is to create unfounded emotional responses from the public. Nonetheless, the plan evidently has the support of Reason’s vice president of policy, who sees the scheme as a less-unfair pay-as-you-go usage assessment on motorists.
Leaving that aside, the move toward black boxes in cars is being helped by a pilot program in Minnesota, where the State placed the devices in 500 cars to test a pay-per-mile fee system. And that program pales in comparison to a stalled effort by the U.S. Senate, in 2011, to allot $90 million for a wider pilot project that sought to deploy 10,000 similarly-equipped cars. The House killed that plan.
Notwithstanding the fact that the 18.4-cent Federal gas tax already washes the Appropriations budget with highway funds, pundits point to the higher fuel efficiency of modern cars, along with the absence of political will to raise the gas tax, as two reasons for the stagnation of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Of course, the government is grasping not at reforms in spending existing highway dollars efficiently, but in finding new ways to ensure revenue growth by adopting a different taxation model for road infrastructure.
From the story:
“This really is a must for our nation. It is not a matter of something we might choose to do,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which is planning for the state to start tracking miles driven by every California motorist by 2025. “There is going to be a change in how we pay these taxes. The technology is there to do it.”
By all means, if the technology is there to do it, then it must be done. Is that the argument?
Some transportation policy planners see black box programs like Minnesota’s as the future of Federal transportation funding. “The gas tax is just not sustainable,” said UM transportation policy expert Lee Munnich. “This works out as the most logical alternative over the long term.”
Sure. But more likely is a scenario in which one new tax doesn’t simply replace an old one, but rather augments it. Taxes, fees and tolls aren’t readily repealed by governments, which always seek out visionary ways to conceal the total cost of tribute from the people, who passively sustain governments by failing to resist integral confiscation schemes.
The black box plan has a long way to go before becoming a standard, but if it takes root, it will become one of the most convenient confiscation schemes our government has yet devised. Along with Obamacare, which asks far too much personal information from private citizens, the black box model would also become one of the most egregious invasions of Federal government into private life, potentially paving the way for the Feds to extract far more from law-abiding motorists than mere taxes.