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The Problem with Free Stuff

By: Alan Cole

The problem with free stuff, simply put, is that too many people want it. If you see a promotion for something like 7-Eleven’s Free Slurpee Day, you always end up having to temper your excitement when you realize that you’ll inevitably be waiting in line with the many others who want to enjoy the same treat. This is an unfortunate fact of life, the sort of thing we all reluctantly come to grips with by the time we turn twelve or so.

What puzzles me, then, is why we so often forget that fact of life when we’re sitting in traffic.

Roads are very much like free Slurpees. While roads are certainly not free to construct (much like a Slurpee isn’t free to make) using a road involves relatively little in the way of a user feeA user fee is a charge imposed by the government for the primary purpose of covering the cost of providing a service, directly raising funds from the people who benefit from the particular public good or service being provided. A user fee is not a tax, though some taxes may be labeled as user fees or closely resemble them. .

Yes, there are toll roads, of course, but most roads don’t have tolls. Yes, there are state gas taxes, and there are is a federal gas taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. of 18.4 cents per gallon. But even when these taxes are combined together, they amount to relatively little on a per-mile basis. In my home state of Virginia, for example, the combined taxes I pay to the federal government and the state government amount to about two cents per mile driven in my car.

I’m not an expert on infrastructure contracting. I don’t know what, exactly, would be the appropriate amount to fund all our road needs. But I do know something for sure: for every mile I drive, I invariably annoy other drivers in an amount much more than $0.02. Not even because I’m an uncourteous driver or anything – but just, by the simple virtue of having my car on the road, I get in other people’s way. Under higher gas prices, I might drive less. So might other people, who frequently decide whether or not to take buses, carpool with co-workers, or move closer to work.

Drivers may be skeptical of paying gas taxA gas tax is commonly used to describe the variety of taxes levied on gasoline at both the federal and state levels, to provide funds for highway repair and maintenance, as well as for other government infrastructure projects. These taxes are levied in a few ways, including per-gallon excise taxes, excise taxes imposed on wholesalers, and general sales taxes that apply to the purchase of gasoline. es to fund government spending. Certainly, not all spending is worthwhile. But drivers should consider the possibility that their gas taxes don’t just fund spending. They also fund getting me off the road. And that’s a valuable benefit to them, too.