Rural Americans have long felt like second-class citizens. Their small numbers reduce their political clout, their way of life is largely misunderstood by those who grew up in urban and suburban America, and in many cases (especially out West) their self-governance is hampered by the sheer amount of land that the federal government owns in and around their communities.
The founders understood the political tension between rural and urban populations — and they created both the Electoral College and the Senate to help equalize what otherwise might have been a lopsided political landscape. The passage of the 17th Amendment took power away from rural communities, and efforts to end the Electoral College threaten to take away more.
The latest front in this war was opened last Friday, when the Congressional Budget Office released a report — commissioned by a Senate Democrat — on whether a “vehicle mileage tax” would be either practical or practicable. A vehicle mileage tax (or VMT) would require people to report on the mileage they drive in their family or business vehicles. The size of the tax would be based on that mileage.
This is not a new idea — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others have proposed this before — but in the past the idea was shot down as too expensive or unworkable. This time, though, the CBO concluded that a VMT would be a “practical option for revenue enhancement” (read: an effective way to tax people).
What makes it efficient is that it effectively transfers the burden of paying for the highest-cost roads (urban roads) to America’s rural residents. While there is merit in having suburbanites pay for urban roads, cities and states have found ways to do this — generally through tolls and gas taxes.
But here we have a tax that will be levied on two classes of drivers: long-distance drivers and those with heavier vehicles, two classes that are increasingly rare in urban areas. Due to space and parking constraints, city dwellers buy smaller cars. Moreover, given their city-driving advantages, hybrid vehicles are more commonly found in cities, which will give city dwellers an additional leg up. Furthermore, because of economic density, city dwellers don’t need to drive long distances to reach basic goods and services.
Rural Americans, on the other hand, have to drive long distances to find those basic goods and services. What might be a one-mile drive to a grocery store in an urban or even suburban setting might be a ten-, twenty-, even fifty-mile drive in a rural area.
Because of weather conditions, road threats, and other factors, trucks and SUVs are part of rural Americans’ everyday lives. It’s not a style choice, but a palpable necessity — and this necessity will be taxed at a higher rate if a VMT is adopted.
The founders warned against this. They knew that there would be ways in which America’s more populated areas would try to benefit themselves at the expense of less populated areas. Some attempts would be overt, while others would be more subtle, and therefore more pernicious. This is clearly one of the latter. It may be efficient — but that’s what makes it so dastardly. Urban America, and its Democratic congressional allies, needs to end its war on rural America.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty. He is currently writing a book called, “The War on Small Business”.