RALEIGH – There are three elements of any argument: a definition of terms, a list of premises, and a logical proof of a conclusion from those premises. As politics essentially consists of a set of ongoing arguments about the good, the just, and the future, politicians talk up lots of definitions, premises, and conclusions.
The latter two usually draw great scrutiny from competitors, interest groups, and the news media. There are fact-checks, counterclaims, assessments of statistics and evidence, assertions of inconsistency and illogic. But sometimes the biggest political disagreements come from differences in definitions, and they don’t draw nearly the same level of scrutiny.
Consider the term “subsidy.” You hear it constantly in political debate. What some proudly call a public investment, critics call a wasteful subsidy. But that’s not a useful application of the term, because it lacks neutrality and thus won’t be used to mean the same thing by everyone in the debate.
The English word “subsidy” originally derives from the Latin subsidium, which translates as to support, literally to sit behind or beneath. In economics, subsidies are a form of transfer – taking away resources from one individual, firm, or sector and giving it to another individual, firm, or sector. By these definitions, it is impossible for everything or everyone to be subsidized in net-benefit terms. You must distinguish between those who subsidize, who sit behind, and those who are subsidized, who sit in front. A subsidy is a transfer between the two groups.
Why belabor this point? Consider a key passage of a recent Winston-Salem Journal story about the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART). Created more than a decade ago to provide regional transit service within the Triad, PART is delivering the usual, paltry return on that “investment.” Its buses average a few hundred at a time during rush hour, in a region where many hundreds of thousands of motorists are traversing the roadways to and from their homes and places of business.
Local transit officials and politicians have bigger dreams. They want to raise taxes on the vast majority of Triad residents, the motorists, in order to run more buses and perhaps rail lines. When transportation scholar David Hartgen pointed out how unrealistic and pointless these ideas were, PART executive director Brent McKinney was defensive:
Hartgen said that if bussing commuters was viable it would pay for itself and the private sector would have already figured out how to do it.
“There’s no practical way that commuters to and from Winston-Salem are going to be convinced to leave their cars at home,” he said.
McKinney disagrees, saying that private cars are subsidized to the tune of millions of dollars a year in expensive roads and structures such as parking decks.
McKinney is misusing the term “subsidized.” Clearly, the transfer of transportation funds is already overwhelmingly from motorists, who more than pay for themselves, to non-motorists, who do not. Highway users pay gas and car taxes into the government, which then expends most but not all of those funds providing road capacity to motorists. As for parking decks, while many are privately owned and operated – and thus funded directly or indirectly by commuters and shoppers – there are some decks owned or partially funded by governments. Even in those cases, however, direct charges pay most of the bill. To the extent that the decks can be said to be subsidized, it is in the context of the market for parking, with some government-sponsored decks being able to charge less than others. That’s no different from saying that some motorists are made to subsidize other motorists, since road-building decisions are unfortunately not made purely on the basis of delivering the most people and freight in the most efficient manner possible.
It doesn’t constitute evidence that non-motorists are subsidizing motorists. It’s the other way around, and PART officials want to make the subsidy for transit still larger.
Notice that to define transit subsidies is not necessarily to argue against them. Many believe that it is a proper governmental responsibility to subsidize the transportation of the poor or disabled, which inherently involves a transfer of resources from the non-poor and abled. But a modest system of public assistance via buses or means-tested transportation vouchers would fall far short of massive subsidies for commuter buses and trains, and the strict land-use planning and social transformation that transit boosters wish to accomplish at the same time.
No wonder they seek to redefine the terms. In their continuing struggle against suburbia, the automobile, and limited government, the English language is not their friend.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.