Tuesday, October 29, 2013

L'écotaxe est morte! Vive l'écotaxe!

The scenes of truckers blocking highways and engaging in violent confrontations with police may remind some older readers of the revolt of the truckers in Chile against the Allende government. We know how that ended. Today the Ayrault government ignominiously surrendered on the ecotax with these immortal words from Jean-Marc Ayrault:

"Le courage, ce n'est pas l'obstination. Le courage, c'est d'écouter et de comprendre, c'est de rechercher la solution et d'éviter l'engrenage de la violence."
It's almost enough to make one nostalgic for the jaw-jutting Sarkozy. It's difficult to imagine him acknowledging flight in the face of a raised fist--even though that's what he did often enough. As his advisor Emmanuelle Mignon said of him, his biggest fault was that he "lacked backbone." Well, perhaps not his biggest fault, but one of his many faults.

Ayrault shares the same vice but would turn it into a virtue, reminding us once again of Rochefoucauld's dictum that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And there has been no shortage of hypocrisy on the ecotax issue. For example, we have Jean-Louis Borloo
"Les modalités de l'écotaxe sont d'une complexité effrayante. Il faut la remettre à plat."
No doubt the tax is complex, but it was enacted back when Borloo was "superminister" of ecology and the environment in the early days of the Sarkozy presidency and was a direct outgrowth of his signature achievement, the "Grenelle de l'environnement." And we have Valérie Pécresse, a minister in the same government: "L'éco-taxe devient la goutte d'eau qui fait déborder le vase. Qui dans ma TL refusait l'hypothèse d'une révolte fiscale?"

Yes, a tax revolt, but against whom? Hollande or Sarkozy? Pécresse argues that it's only because Hollande imposed so many other taxes that truckers are rejecting this one, hence "the drop of water that causes the vase to overflow." But is this really the case? Or is it a classic instance of a Pigovian tax imposed on a special interest in the interest of all in order to force it to take account of a negative externality (pollution) not currently incorporated in its pricing structure? When the special interest responds with violence, is it really in the general interest for the government to surrender meekly?

Here, then, is yet another instance where a consensus in the center of the political spectrum, enjoying (I believe) majority support, has been blocked by a determined minority. The tyranny of the majority is one thing for democratic theorists to worry about, but I think that the tyranny of the minority is a more important issue for our time, in the United States as well as France.