The government is us and taxes and tolls are not theft

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A triumph of the conservative movement was getting citizens to think of government as something separate and distinct from the citizenry. In reality, government is not a lurking entity waiting to tax us and give nothing in return. As Abraham Lincoln said, the government is of, by and for the people. The government is us.

Because Republicans have internalized the idea that government is separate and distinct from the citizenry, it’s difficult to locate a real fiscal conservative. Fiscal conservatism, after all, presumes the government has a right to tax to balance the books. But for so many Republicans, this is impossible to square with the idea that government is separate and distinct from the citizenry. You can’t possibly raise taxes to balance the books if taxation is theft!

I heard echoes of this pap while reading about Republican opposition in Hartford to the idea of bringing back interstate tolls. Connecticut is the only high-traffic state that does not demand drivers pay for road upkeep. It used to, but because there was a fiery accident, involving a truck driver who fell asleep and rammed into a tolling station, that gave somebody a credible rationale for arguing that tolls were not just bad but bad-bad very bad.

But if the rationale against tolls was highway safety back in the 1980s, the rationale against them now is blind ideology. The government can’t possibly impose tolls to pay for things everyone benefits from — things like bridges, roads, and railways — because the government is separate and distinct from the citizenry.

Tolls are theft!

Well, that’s not quite what state Rep. David Rutigliano said. The Trumbull Republican didn’t say “theft.” But he did tell the Connecticut Post that tolls are a tax and that taxes are “punitive.” The Department of Transportation’s plan, he said, “relies on us in Fairfield County. Anyway you slice it, as proposed now, it’s a tax.”

I guess. If tolls are a tax, so are citations for speeding or public drunkenness or indecent exposure — virtually any misdemeanor punishable by fine but usually not jail time. Indeed, if any instance in which I hand over money to the government is “punitive,” then getting fined for drunkenness violates my constitutionally guaranteed right against double jeopardy. One, I’m being punished for the crime. And two, I’m being punished by paying a fine.

That’s nonsense, but that’s the kind of obsession with language that can be expected from some Republicans. Rutigliano is evidently one of them. He knows the T-word is going to fire up constituents. Fine, as long as no one figures out his reasoning is bonkers.

Rutigliano is right in that Fairfield County will experience the lion’s share of tolling. But that’s not anything anyone can prevent, because no one can relocate New York City. If I were Rutigliano and I wanted to oppose tolls without looking like a fool, I’d focus not on language or geography but on politics and history.

Fact is, Connecticut has a bad habit of using money for stuff the money’s not supposed to be used for. Tolls should be for roads. Full stop. There should be a law forbidding tolls from being used for anything else. Full stop. But the fiscal crisis being what it is, and human nature being what it is, tolls can and will be used for virtually anything if there are no ironclad prohibitions against it.

That really should be a no-brainer position for any Republican to take. No need to go off on “punitive taxes.” Making it no-brainier is that Gov. Dannel Malloy has drawn a line on tolls, saying they should not come before a “constitutional lock box” that protects the Special Transportation Fund from raiders.

But that may prove tricky for some Republicans, because taking even the no-brainiest position would require aligning with Malloy, who, it is worth repeating, is not a Republican. Bipartisanship isn’t bad in and of itself, of course, but politics is about trade-offs.

What’s to be gained? That’s for Republicans to figure out.

Whatever conclusion they come to will surely be better than where they are now. Everyone wants better roads, bridges, and railways and because they do, it’s OK to ask people to pay for them.

After all, the government is us.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Newspapers, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.

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