Atmospheric user fees

Frances Woolley thinks it’s time to rebrand the carbon tax.

It’s not clear why carbon taxes should be called taxes in any event. What distinguishes taxes  from user fees or social insurance premiums is the absence of a quid pro quo between the taxpayer and the government. Paying more taxes does not entitle a person to more government services. By way of contrast, paying Employment Insurance premiums is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for accessing Employment Insurance benefits. By this definition, carbon taxes are more like a user fee than a tax. There is a quid pro quo: pay the tax, burn the carbon; burn the carbon, pay the tax. Go ahead and contribute to global warming, as long as you pay your dues.

Renaming carbon taxes “atmospheric user fees” would be a start, but people are smart enough to see through purely cosmetic name changes. If funds raised through the charges on fossil fuels go into general government revenue, it is hard to argue that they are anything other than taxes. If, on the other hand, the revenues are earmarked for tax refunds, low-emissions transportation, tree planting, and initiatives to combat climate change, it becomes much easier to argue that a $0.20 per litre charge on gasoline is, in fact, a user fee.

Calling your policy an atmospheric user fee wouldn’t, of course, prevent your opponent from describing it as a “permanent tax on everything” that would “screw everybody.” In that regard, it is up to the party and the political leader proposing the policy to make the case for it and defend it against such criticism.

That said, Frances is very right to think about language and presentation. I’m reminded of this polling from the 2008 election on Stephane Dion’s signature proposal. When respondents were presented with the statement that “the Liberal party’s carbon tax will really hurt the Canadian economy,” 53.5% either strongly or somewhat agreed. When respondents were presented with the statement that “the Liberal party’s Green Shift will really hurt the Canadian economy,” 39.7% either strongly or somewhat agreed.

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