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The Tentacle


June 28, 2007

Virginia's Anti-Tax Foolishness

Tony Soltero

The difference between pragmatism and dogmatism can be boiled down to the way each mindset assesses a solution to a problem.

The pragmatist sees things through a "working/not working" lens; if a particular approach to a problem isn't delivering the expected results, the pragmatist will usually abandon it and try something else. The dogmatist, on the other hand, tilts around a "right/wrong" axis - what matters is not whether an approach to a problem actually solves the issue, but whether the solution conforms to the dogmatist's preconceived ideology. Whether it's actually effective is a secondary issue at best.

Broadly speaking, the single biggest problem in America today is that our government, and especially the White House, features too many dogmatists and not enough pragmatists. The examples of this are numerous and obvious enough that they require little enumeration.

To cite one of the less visible ones, Congress just voted to continue funding abstinence-only programs for teens, even when there's no evidence whatsoever that they actually do anything to reduce teen sexual activity. But, hey, if it makes our lawmakers feel better about themselves, then that's all that matters.

The problem with dogmatism is that it inevitably leads to flagrantly absurd situations, as the social costs of sticking to an ineffective policy because it is "right" gradually mount to an untenable level. And this is exactly the point at which our neighboring state of Virginia has arrived.

Effective this weekend, the Old Dominion will begin to levy new "civil remedial fees" on traffic violations. These aren't your ordinary, garden-variety hundred-dollar speeding fines, though those very much remain on the books; these are eye-popping, wallet-busting extra surcharges lopped onto the traffic fines like an anvil thrown into a grocery basket. A driver exceeding the speed limit by 20-miles-an-hour will pay $1000 over and above the regular fine - and that's nowhere near the nastiest gouge.

"Remedial fees" of the same order of magnitude will apply to many lesser traffic offenses, such as failing to use a turn signal or the vaguely defined transgression of "impeding traffic."

Keep in mind that these offenses are already being fined and prosecuted by the state; nobody's arguing that drivers should get away with doing these things.

And as a special bonus, judges will have no discretion to reduce or eliminate this kind of pocketbook munching by the state; the commonwealth has cleverly designated these as "civil" fees, which places them out of the scope of the judicial system, and also sidesteps the basic legal issue of double jeopardy.

Why has Virginia decided to break a butterfly on the wheel like this? The answer is simple: because the state needs money to build roads. The state delegates who sponsored this bill openly admit to this. Well, why not use traditional revenue sources for road-building, as most jurisdictions do? Oh, because that would involve raising taxes, and raising taxes is wrong!

So, Virginia is now adopting draconian, Stalinist measures against its drivers because its leaders can't think pragmatically. And not only are they blinded by their anti-tax dogmatism; they've shown little evidence that they've thought through any unintended consequences resulting from this brilliant idea of theirs.

Will Virginia have to deal with more unlicensed drivers, as motorists decide that the financial risk of getting caught in a fairly routine traffic violation - which can happen to any of us - makes it worth it to not register?

Will the courts become more and more clogged as more drivers seek out lawyers and jury trials to avoid four-digit fines?

Will more people skimp on insurance to ensure that they have funds available for traffic stops?

Will highway safety be compromised as more drivers decide to step on the gas and try to flee when they see the blue lights flashing?

Will low-income Virginia residents have to give up their cars to pay these fees - and then subsequently lose their jobs, further burdening social services?

In sum, is there any evidence that this is going to make life on Virginia's roads any easier and safer? After all, that's the entire point of having traffic laws, isn't it?

But such are the failures of dogmatic anti-tax fundamentalism. In order to live up to its preconceived ideology, the legislature of Virginia has decided to treat speeding as if it were an offense on a par with drug dealing or assault.

And, of course, the main irony of this new plan is that the roads will get their funds only if Virginia motorists break the law with enough frequency. If all drivers start following the law to the letter, there's no highway money for the state. This raises the obvious question: What is the state's incentive to get motorists to follow the law?

While this is a bad situation for Virginia drivers, it can serve as an instructive experience for Maryland's legislature. I have confidence that they won't even think about implementing this kind of police-state foolishness in the Free State.

Because pragmatists, not dogmatists, dominate Maryland's General Assembly, let's all thank God for that.



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