Earlier last week the government of French President Emmanuel Macron suspended its planned increase in motor fuel taxes that had brought about the most violent protests in France since the 1960s. The protests may soon fade from public attention, but we should not forget what they signify.
The speed, scale and anonymity of the “gilets jaunes” (French for “yellow vests”) protest reminded many of the U.S. Tea Party movement in 2009-2010, which vented outrage at the Obama administration’s plan to build a national cap-and-trade emissions system, among other issues. The current protest started with members of a disgruntled working class that depends on driving for its livelihood. The rest of France identified easily with the protest, since all motorists are required by a 2008 law to have yellow safety vests in their vehicles while driving.
What ‘Climate Firsters’ from President Macron on down cannot fathom is just how ‘unequal’ and therefore ‘unfair’ green taxes are to the middle and working classes. Fuel taxes by themselves are among the most regressive taxes ever invented. The 30-40 cents-per-gallon increases proposed would not affect the disposable income of the rich much, but they would disproportionally affect people with low wages and the unemployed in rural and exurban places throughout France.
It is stupefying how often the same aggrieved populist reaction can occur over and over again against governments trying to implement revenue-raising climate taxes without the political class understanding its own culpability.
The list of attempts has grown long: governments in France, Britain, Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States — Washington state and California, to be specific — have all attempted to impose green taxes in the past decade without taking into account the costs to the middle and working classes. With the exception of California, all of the other jurisdictions have either rescinded portions of, if not all, the taxation or experienced a change in government as a direct result of implementing such a tax.
In France’s case, Macron has been transformed from a climate hero to a political heel, becoming the spokesman for the globalist left and its demands for economic sacrifices to international movements with little payoff. He should have known better. A lesser-known but successful 2013 fuel protest in France called the “bonnets rouges” (“red caps”) ended government attempts at levying an ‘eco-tax’ on truck transport. Protestors destroyed over 200 automated toll systems and radar-ticket machines before the Socialist-led government backed down completely.
An easy solution to this conundrum is to change one’s mind about the need to redistribute resources and power, and to focus instead on cutting emissions. I say “easy” ironically, since no left-of-center government has ever considered changing its mind (or strategy) on climate policy. Interestingly, revenue-neutral taxes on pollution — the kind of tax-swap that decreases other types of taxes in return for a pollution or fuel tax — have worked in places like British Columbia, where they were implemented in 2008 by a right-of-center government.
In France’s case, a government levying a revenue-neutral climate or carbon tax would presumably look to cut its value-added tax (VAT) by a certain percentage, or the country’s very high personal income tax rate, in return for fuel taxes. This tax shift would give people the resources to change their behavior toward fossil fuels over time. For example, individuals could use the money they save in income taxes to save for a newer, more fuel-efficient car.
The fact that government leaders are incapable of trading away the dream of an ever-growing central government in return for saving the health of the planet shows how Marx’s historical determinism still rattles around in politicians’ intellectual subconscious. This spiritual separation between the modern proletariat and its secular clerisy has a long way to go before finishing, and a divorce will be of great consequence. Who could have guessed that “la France profonde” would become a red state (“état rouge”) so quickly?
Image credit: Alexandros Michailidis