The Problem with Free Stuff

December 12, 2014

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 fee.

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 tax 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 taxes 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.

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