What Does Government Do When People Start Living Healthier? Tax That, Too, Obviously.

Cyclists eyed as potential new revenue sources


Then the libertarian turned to the progressive and asked, "But who will pay for the roads?"
Credit: moarplease / / CC BY-NC

When you tax something, you get less of it. It's a fundamental rule most creators of government economic policy know or at least claim to know. The rule has been used for Nanny State meddling for ages, piling on bigger taxes on disliked consumer goods like cigarettes, gasoline, and alcohol. The revenue can be used for good things, proponents say, like government programs to help children, the environment, and improve citizens' health.

There's an obvious flaw here – if the paternalistic nudging works, less money will be spent on the taxed goods, which then reduces the revenue for government programs (and the employees – both public and private – whose livelihoods have grown dependent on them) the taxes created in the first place. California has seen this in its children's programs funded by the state's cigarette taxes. California's gas taxes went from the second-highest in the country to the highest in the country entirely to make up for the loss of revenue caused by people buying less gas, an obvious and predictable outcome of having such high gas taxes.

So what happens when the government's grand Nanny State plan works and people start living the healthier, more environmentally friendly lives city and state functionaries want for us? Will they start scaling back all these programs funded by those now-redeemed sinners? No, don't be silly. They'll start looking for new ways to tax them. Several states and municipalities are looking for ways to drag revenue off of bicyclists. A Chicago City Council member proposed a $25 annual tax for cyclists. The Associated Press notes:

A city councilwoman's recent proposal to institute a $25 annual cycling tax set off a lively debate that eventually sputtered out after the city responded with a collective "Say what?" A number of gruff voices spoke in favor, feeding off motorists' antagonism toward what they deride as stop sign-running freeloaders. Bike-friendly bloggers retorted that maybe pedestrians ought to be charged a shoe tax to use the sidewalks.

"There'd be special bike cops pulling people over? Or cameras? What do you do (to enforce this)?" asked Mike Salvatore, owner of Heritage Bicycles, a new Chicago hangout that neatly blends a lively cafe with a custom bike-building workshop in a 19th-century building.

Chicago is by no means the only place across the U.S. tempted to see bicyclists as a possible new source of revenue, only to run into questions of fairness and enforceability. That is testing the vision of city leaders who are transforming urban expanses with bike lanes and other amenities in a quest for relevance, vitality and livability—with never enough funds.

Two or three states consider legislation each year for some type of cycling registration and tax—complete with decals or mini-license plates, National Conference of State Legislatures policy specialist Douglas Shinkle said. This year, it was Georgia, Oregon, Washington and Vermont. The Oregon legislation, which failed, would even have applied to children.

"I really think that legislators are just trying to be as creative as possible and as open to any sort of possibilities to fill in any funding gaps. Everything is on the table," he said.

Oops. If cities and states wanted more of this behavior and less of the "naughty" (imagine an army of scare quotes around that word), shouldn't they have prepared for declining revenue? Now that they've taken cars off the streets, how do they pay for the roads the bicyclists are using? Tax them, too, and watch as the Nanny State mask slips. The money was always more important than encouraging healthy living.

Tying infrastructure taxes to the citizens who use such infrastructure isn't itself a bad idea, but that doesn't seem to be the approach most governments are taking. The AP notes Colorado Springs has a special sales tax for bicycles that the community accepts as a way to help fund cycling projects. Other cities and states, though, seem to just be trying to get money.

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  1. What Does Government Do When People Start Living Healthier? Tax That, Too, Obviously.

    Bike riding is not healthy.

    1. You’re feeling ornery today, aren’t you?

    2. Bike riding is cardio exercise, which leads to better health.


      1. He means that bikers account for a disproportionately high percentage of fatalities and serious injuries in vehicular accidents.

        Which makes sense, given that most of these involve a person who’s only marginally more protected than a pedestrian getting hit by a car.

        1. Yep. My last accident, had I been in a car, we would have traded some paint.

          As it was, I was lucky to not get a broken wrist.

          1. Biking is risky — had a close call with a wipeout a few years ago that could have killed me if the car behind me had left home a few seconds earlier — but being out of shape can kill you too, or make your days less pleasant because you feel physically rotten.

            1. Not a real dilemma since there are other ways to get fit besides bicycling.

            2. The last incident before I sold my road bike involved me being cut off, nearly eating pavement, and near fisticuffs avoided only by the fact that the guy’s wife had no desire to see me kick the crap out of her husband in their front yard. Sold the bike the next week and now I only do single track.

              1. Pussy.

  2. Tax it, make it suffer, kill it with regs, then move on to the next target. This is the way to utopia.

  3. Apparently Scott didn’t get the memo from Bob Poole about the glory of user fees.

    1. Re-read the last graph.

    2. Poole is all for “taxing anything that moves” so long as the government pretends it is “privatization”.

  4. ” The revenue can be used for good things, proponents say, like government programs to help children” Well that makes it all OK. I mean the chilrenz are getting help from all sorts of stuff and things.

  5. “There’d be special bike cops pulling people over? Or cameras? What do you do (to enforce this)?” asked Mike Salvatore, owner of Heritage Bicycles…

    “All in favor of Mike Salvatore’s motion for special bike cops and expensive new camera systems?”


    “Motion passed!”

  6. legislators are just trying to be as creative as possible

    No, that would be more along the lines of “gee guys, maybe our meddling parasitism isn’t beneficial to our constituents, council is adjourned until there’s a real problem that needs our attention further notice.”

  7. And my cold, black, libertarian heart will grow three times when the proggie cycle-Nazis whine and cry about being taxed. They only want taxes that affect other people – like, people who drink sodas and smoke cigs.

    1. They never think it’s going to happen to them, do they? And when it does, they just don’t make the connection. They complain about police brutality but support laws and philosophies which enable such behavior. Madness.

    2. Considering that the keepers of the intellectual vanguard in academia defend communism and socialism without the slightest inkling of the irony considering the academics were the first ones the communists sent to the camps in every revolutionary government ever, it’s unsurprising that your run of the mill lay progtard is able to achieve that sort of comparatively easy cognitive dissonance.

      1. You just don’t get it, do you? The people doing those bad things weren’t true Scotsmen Christians Klein bottles communists.

    3. You’re stereotyping people as members of groups, rather than as individuals. What’s libertarian about that?

      I’m a libertarian activist, and I don’t own a car — my bicycle is my main form of transportation. I don’t support taxes on driving, and I don’t take kindly to “libertarian” car owners saying people like me should be taxed, just because they are too mentally lazy to understand that bicyclists come in all different ideological varieties, just as drivers do.

      1. I don’t care what your ideology is. If you use it, you pay for it. That is fundamentally libertarian. But bike riders don’t pay for bike paths. They get subsidized by general funds or by raiding gas taxes and motor vehicle registrations.

        1. No taxpayer subsidized infrastructure should ever be built anywhere ever.

  8. I would not have guessed I had so much in common with Richard Marx. But I do have a soft-spot for that one mid-80s hit, as I recall very well playing doctor while it played in the background.

    Hmm, following some other links, it appears Mr. Marx has a decent sense of humor.

    1. I like “Hazard”. Now I like Richard Marx, too!

    2. He should’ve known better…

  9. Bike-friendly bloggers retorted that maybe pedestrians ought to be charged a shoe tax to use the sidewalks.

    Really shouldn’t be giving them ideas, even as a reductio. These are some of the same people who think that the U.S. should have a maximum income or that a mandatory federal exercise program is a fantastic way to improve lives and lower healthcare costs.

  10. Everything is on the table

    Except cutting spending, apparently.

    1. They don’t understand the concept of “cutting spending”, so it is considered to be outside of “everything”.

      1. Not taking is giving and not giving is taking.

        Cutting spending is not giving, which is the same thing as taking. Thus spending cuts are theft from the poor, and that’s just not fair.

        Tax cuts are not taking, which is the same thing as giving. Thus tax cuts are gifts to the rich, and that is not fair.

        The only fair options are to raise taxes and increase spending. Anything else is stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.


        1. This can have advantages:

          Once Tony demanded to know what additional forms of revenue we would support. So I said I’d tax farmers at a rate equal to the subsidies they get, and tax renewable energy companies at a rate equal to the subsidies they get, etc. He got the point and went away.

          Very amusing.

          1. Last time I saw him I started making harassing post about how he cannot grasp the distinction between taxation for the purpose of paying for government services, and taxation for the purpose of transferring wealth.

            Haven’t seen him since.

            1. It’s not taxation if it is a fee that can be avoided by choosing to not use the government service, and where such a choice is reasonably viable (unlike, say, avoiding income tax by being perpetually unemployed). Toll roads where there are alternatives (slower but doable) to taking the toll roads, for example. Got those here in North Austin.

              Taxation involves coercion.

              1. I’m talking about taxes to pay for law enforcement, courts, and defense. You know, those few uses of government force that are arguably legitimate.

    2. You monster.

    3. Isn’t that unconstitutional?

  11. But what about the sidewalks – how come nobody is talking about taxing those? And pedestrian crosswalks, electric signs. Whose gonna pay for that?

    1. Adjacent property owners should pay for sidewalks, or not. It should be up to them how good or shitty the sidewalk in front of their property is.

  12. If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
    If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
    If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat
    If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

    1. Harrison was the best Beatle. And the only whose solo stuff I can listen to.

    2. Beat me to it…

  13. When I a child many (many) years ago, I lived in San Diego. There was a city small license plate for bicycles that cost, maybe, a dollar a year that had to be mounted on the back of the seat. We had to renew it every year. The claimed justification for it was to cover the cost of finding stolen bicycles and returning them to the owner. Whenever we knew somebody who had their bike stolen (a rare occurrence) never expected it to be returned and we were not disappointed. I guess the city fathers never thought the thief would just remove the plate.

    1. Also note the implication that they need extra money *just to do the job they are hired to do in the first place*.

      1. 80k a year plus benefits doesn’t get you the help it used to.

  14. How about a tax on the people participating in Critical Mass? Nobody gives a shit about those fuckers.

    1. As long as we’re all letting go our principles, I would love to tax the shit outta these fuckers.

      1. Can’t we just punch the smug right off of them instead?

      2. I don’t know, but that looks like fun to me.

    2. I have never figured out the thought processes of those assholes.

      How does fucking up the drive home for a bunch of the people paying for their precious trails make people dig their cause more?

      I bike some and it kills me to be associated with those bastards. It is like when I buy an Apple macbook. I love the product, but I hate being associated with those smug twerps.

    3. Not true. And even if it were true, does that make it fine for the State to take money from them by force?

      Are you embracing a program of targeting the least popular members of society for extra theft at the hands of government? Because, presumably, you think *you* are popular enough that your number will never come up?

  15. Re-read the last graph.


    You slay me.

  16. I’m not even sure I understand why any politicians perceive sin taxes as a primary revenue source and not as what they really are, a social planning utility. Isn’t it blindingly obvious that it’s the General Fund that is responsible for covering funding gaps, and thus projection shortfalls should lead to Income/Sales tax increases?

    1. As long as the bill doesn’t come due before the next election cycle then who gives a shit?

  17. What we need to tax is legislation. Pass a law and you pay a hefty tax.

    1. I would go for that. One that someone needs to explain though is why do we tax people who are paid with tax money? Reduce their pay by the amount of tax they are paying and make it exempt. Taxing earnings is bad enough but taxing taxes seems a little over the top.

  18. This dynamic is also at work in water and power conservation. When people are told that they need to conserve, and then do so too much, they are often penalized by higher rates to cover the reduction in revenue. Creates a situation where people realize they are idiots for inconveniencing themselves, because they’re going to end up paying either way. Instead of using markets to create an incentive for conservation, you have one “public good” shooting another in the foot.

    1. Fucking bus fares are like this too.

      “What? Bus ridership is way down because it is just as expensive to ride the bus as it is to drive yourself downtown and park? Well I guess we need to raise fares.”

      Fast forward a few months:

      “Huh. Who would have thought a fare increase would drive even more bus riders into their own cars? We still have a huge shortfall in bus fares. I guess we better raise fares again.”

      1. Fucking bus fares are like this too.

        All things being equal in a free market, won’t all forms of transit cost basically the same amount? The real difference is distance traveled. So those who are willing to spend more on travel will live farther away from work/commerce/play, and those who want to limit travel costs will live closer to work/commerce/play. Of course, there’s zoning regulations at play here as well. If you really care about lowering costs(and thus, limiting travel distance), you’d allow high rise housing next to commercial buildings next to playgrounds and bars and museums and malls and whatever, so that workers can get to these places quickly and cheaply. Of course, in a free market, this sort of stuff will sort itself out as the wealthy purchase land around themselves to insulate themselves from the poor. And to an extent, this already exists. But, because the wealthy have the power, they are able to get better deals for themselves and not spend as much as they should really need to in a free market to do this sort of stuff. And as most of us know, if you deregulate things like zoning and transit, then the price will drop, and it will be more affordable for the less-desirables. And really, the only progress that can really be made is making the training of civility cheaper. The more flexibility, freedom, and personal accountability there is, the better society will be as a whole. I’ve rambled. Fuck socialists.

        1. I agree that if you buy property you should be able to build whatever you want there.

          If I was going to run things, I would get government out of the mass transit business entirely. Instead I would simply figure out how sharing a ride saves me in congestion and how much reducing congestion costs in having to build new roads (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know my gubbment shouldn’t be building roads either).

          If I determined that taking 1 car off the road per mile reduces congestion by x % and by doing so means that I didn’t have to build an extra lane, then I’d pay someone $y per mile for each passenger that they transported.

          The private sector would figure out pretty quickly how to create profitable bus routes, van pools etc. I’d never have to worry about the hassle of the transit unions etc.

        2. Shorter rant. Transit costs the same, but the goal is to reduce congestion. Congestion leads to demands for more road lanes, lost time stuck in transit and more maintenance costs of those extra lanes.

  19. The nanny state would rather have more money than people doing the right/healthy thing… most shocking… article… evar.

  20. “The city councilwoman didn’t do herself any favors by trying to sell her bike tax idea as an alternative to a hike in cable TV taxes; opponents accused her of wanting to subsidize coach potatoes at the expense of healthy cyclists.” (Emphasis mine.)

    Leave aside the idiocy behind the idea that not stealing from people is the same as “subsidizing” them.

    The fact is that this tax is clearly one of a string of schemes to extort money from people to help reduce the huge financial burden that haunts Chicago; there is no other motive here and who would care anyway about politicians’ excuses for stealing from people?

  21. To a Statist, what is the right level of taxation?


  22. “Two or three states consider legislation each year for some type of cycling registration and tax – complete with decals or mini-license plates.”
    Are you kidding? This has been going on in California since I was kid and that was over 50 years ago. But, it was never enforced.

  23. “When you tax something, you get less of it”

    But tax something in the economy, and we all get richer. That is, of course, if you think the government is a good thing. If you think the government is a bad thing, I suppose you might feel poorer. But I’ve never seen anything lessened by taxation, unless one is stuck in a position where taxes=bad. For some of us, taxes=good. Seems to me, since taxes are good, the more the merrier.

  24. My 33rd Law….

    Falk’s Thirty-Third Law:

    “The Only Criterion for putting a Tax on something is that the “something” must be Measurable. No other reason is necessary.”

    You will never find any other explanation which explains so rationally and succinctly why anything is taxed.

    If it can be measured, it’s a target for someone in Government to find a justification to tax it.

    Remember the Boston Tea Party? “Taxation Without Representation”?

    Now consider the Inheritance Tax. [a.k.a., “Estate Taxes”] …

    If that’s not the ultimate “Taxation Without Representation,” what is?

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