Opinion: Climate change tax backfired for progressives

Merrill Matthews

 The recent French demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s gasoline tax increase may have been the first such uprising, but it probably won’t be the last—in France or elsewhere.

Hundreds of thousands of French working-class demonstrators took to the streets of Paris and other parts of the country to protest Macron’s 25-cents per gallon gas tax increase, with more increases to follow.  The revenue would supposedly be used to fight climate change.           

It’s not like gasoline in France is cheap.      

The average price of gas is about $7 a gallon, according to the Associated Press, which adjusted for the European use of liters. 

And that’s in a country where the average income is about two-thirds that of America’s.

Macron didn’t care because he, like many progressives, wants to be seen as a leader in the fight against climate change, regardless of how much that legacy costs the working class.

But it turns out his French constituents do care—a lot.

Macron was stunned by the size and determination of the spontaneous revolt.  After insisting he wouldn’t cave on the gas tax, he did, and is now promising even more concessions.

France may be the most disruptive, but it isn’t the first populist pushback.

Australia became the first country to repeal its tax on carbon emissions. That’s where the government imposes a tax on each ton of carbon released into the atmosphere.

Even though it was considered model legislation, the Aussies didn’t want it and the Senate repealed it in 2014—after only two years.  Prime Minister Tony Abbot called the tax “a useless destructive tax which damaged jobs, which hurt families’ cost of living and which didn't actually help the environment.”

Sounds like the French demonstrators.

Closer to home, California raised the state’s gasoline tax by 12 cents last year to 55.22 cents per gallon, the second highest in the country.

Instead of rioting like the French, Californians forced a statewide tax-repeal vote last month.  The effort failed, with 45 percent voting to repeal, but then gasoline isn’t $7 a gallon in California—yet.

Riot police officers fire tear gas canisters to demonstrators during a demonstration Saturday, Dec.1, 2018 in Paris. French authorities have deployed thousands of police on Paris' Champs-Elysees avenue to try to contain protests by people angry over rising taxes and Emmanuel Macron's presidency.

The federal government currently imposes its own tax on gasoline: 18.4 cents per gallon. Small croissants compared to France.

But the federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised in 25 years and has lost 64 percent of its purchasing power.  Look for progressives to seek a significant increase in the near future.

In addition, members of Congress recently introduced a bipartisan tax on carbon emissions, like Australia’s, that would force fossil fuel-producing companies to pay $15 for each ton of carbon their products emit.  The tax would rise by $10 per ton every subsequent year.

Those two proposals would make driving a car or turning on the lights a lot more expensive, especially for lower- and fixed-income families.

The lesson from France is that working-class voters have a limit.  Push people too far and we may see Paris-like riots in our own backyards.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.