The Folly of Congestion Charges

Image credit: Hindustan Times

All over the world governments are turning to congestion charges. These taxes are supposed to achieve two aims. The first is to reduce congestion and the second is to raise always-needed revenues for over-spending governments.

While the latter goal may be achieved (in a highly regressive manner by taxing people who can neither avoid the tax nor afford to pay for it) the former goal is impossible to achieve by means of the tax.

Congestion charges are therefore both immoral and stupid.

Pointing this out, however, is not at all the same as ignoring the environmental and social costs of large-scale commuting. In fact, showing why congestion charges are stupid is in fact the first step to implementing policies that are far more equitable and far more effective.

The premise behind congestion charges is simple: when you make something more expensive, people will consume less of it. What could be easier?

Except, of course, this general relationship between price and consumption only holds true for certain classes of consumption. To see why, let’s imagine a government in a fit of smart and stable genius decides to impose an oxygen tax. Henceforth people who breath will be taxed on the amount of O2 they consume (except rich people, of course, who will get the necessary exemptions to this tax).

By using this example we can see the obvious problem with congestion charges: there are classes of consumption that by their very nature are impervious to additional taxes. Would people really breath less if O2 was taxed? How on earth would that possibly work? If effective, the tax would reduce positive activities such as exercising while utterly failing to address negative activities and outcomes. Most people would simply carry on breathing as normal, because they have no choice.

It’s the same thing with congestion. Instead of looking at why congestion occurs, government policy simply reaches for a simple-minded non-solution and the results are predictably atrocious.

So: why does congestion occur? Simply because workers have no choice but to arrive and depart from their places of work at the times mandated by their employers.

As organizations are still firmly wedded to Victorian modes of operation (gather people together in one place as if paper documents still had to be passed by hand around the workforce) rather than taking advantage of modern communication technologies to permit most white-collar work to be done from home. This results in massive numbers of people all commuting at the same time, thereby overloading worn-out transportation systems designed to cope with far smaller populations.

Once we see the root of the problem, the equitable solution becomes obvious: tax organizations that fail to promote work-from-home. This would significantly reduce congestion (the nominal goal) and raise some additional revenues as laggards fail to move quickly enough. By reducing the total amount of commuting done, rather than simply trying to spread the load as per congestion charges, the pollution and wasted time resulting from commuting would drop dramatically. That’s good for the environment (fewer emissions) and good for those affected (more sleep, more free time, reduced stress).

So why don’t governments implement sensible policies that could actually work? Why do governments reliably implement stupid policies that harm citizens and fail to achieve their goals?

It’s because governments are merely groups of individuals who in general lack any suitable qualifications for the jobs they are given, who have few if any incentives to perform adequately, and who work within a system given to stasis and blame-avoidance. Representative democracy rewards those who can bluster and lie convincingly, not those who are competent and diligent.

In short, not only is populism and all the self-harms it causes the inevitable consequence of representative democracy; so too is the continuation of planet-harming inanities like the daily commute. While some self-deluding “progressives” imagine that waving a magic wand and banning capitalism (which they don’t even understand) would by a miracle fix all problems, the reality is that our system of governance is the root cause of a great many of our current problems.

Unfortunately, just as is the case with congestion charges, the status quo will continue to drag us into the mire because it’s the easiest thing to do, because we humans hate change, and because almost no one has correctly diagnosed the fundamental source of the many ills that assail us.

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