17 May 2017

A Libertarian Argument To Subsidize Cycling?

Like many bookish young people of my generation, I had my "Ayn Rand phase."  I actually believed (or, at least, thought I believed) that if you want something, you should pay for it and you should only get what you pay for.  If you can't afford more, I believed, it was your own damned fault.

Of course, to libertarians--a very loose term that is normally used to describe Randians--taxes are anathema. But most see them as, if not a necessary evil, then at least as a reality:  after all, we're not likely to privatize roads, bridges and such any time soon.  To the extent that they're willing to tolerate having their money "confiscated" by the government, they believe that people should get only what they pay for.

Every once in a while, I encounter that line of thinking when some driver swears at me or anyone else, upon learning I'm a cyclist, lapses into an anti-bike rant.  Every single time some motorist vented his or her rage at me for taking up space in "his" or "her" roadway--or at having part of it "taken away" by a bike lane--or questioned my patriotism or simply expressed disdain of me because I choose two wheels instead of four--he or she said something along the lines of, "Well, you don't pay taxes!"

As I have pointed out to more than one such driver--and in this blog--the only taxes that they pay and we don't are the ones added to the price of gasoline.  If anything, we might be paying higher proportions of our incomes in taxes, because drivers--especially if they are salespeople, contractors or work in other auto-dependent endeavors--can write off much of the expense of driving and maintaining their cars.  Moreover, they make heavier use of the infrastructure we and they pay for.

Even if they are misinformed about who pays and how much, most people with whom I've gotten into arguments or discussions about bike vs car taxes are pretty consistent in their beliefs about taxation.  Also, they seem to agree with me on this:  Taxation is an effective way to regulate behavior.  That is why people (some, anyway) donate to charities:  It lowers their tax bills.  In my city and other jurisdictions, it's also helped to reduce smoking, among other things.

If we follow this line of reasoning, one might expect that tax policy could not only entice more people ride bikes to work, it could also encourage employers to encourage their employees to pedal to the office or factory or studio or wherever they work.

Well, there is evidence that such policies actually work.  In 2003, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (Think of a British IRS.) enacted a regulation (EIM 21664), commonly known as "The Cycle to Work Scheme".  It allows employers to provide bicycles to their employees tax-free.  That is, tax-free for both the employers and employees, who do not have to declare them as part for their employment tax or as part of their taxable income, respectively.

Of course, certain conditions have to be met.  You don't get to deduct your custom Mercian or Bob Jackson--unless, of course, you are using it mainly for job-related travel and your employer provides it for that purpose.  HMRC doesn't expect employees to provide detailed records of how they use their bikes "unless there is clear evidence to suggest that less than half of the use of the cycle or equipment is on qualifying journeys."  Now, I'm no expert on US, let alone British, tax law, but I imagine (from my reading of the policy) that taking the bike on a charity ride or some other such event every now and again wouldn't disqualify the bike or the rider.

Notice the word "equipment" is included. It includes helmets that conform to European standard EN-1078, child seats, lights (including dynamos), bells and bulb horns, reflective clothing and front, rear and spoke reflectors. So it won't pay for your lycra "Sky Team" kit, cycle computers or training.

According to a study the Institute for Employment Studies released last year, there have been more than a million successful applications for Cycle to Work since 2007.  According to a survey of 13,000 users, nine percent were non-cyclists before they became part of the "scheme", and respondents, on average, said they are now cycling more than twice as many miles as they pedaled before the scheme.  Even among already-committed cyclists, about two-thirds said they'd increased the amount of riding they did before they entered the program.

The IES said that even if five percent of participants--9200 people--cycled 30 minutes a day as a result of their involvement in the program, their reduced absenteeism and increased fitness saved 72 million GBP a year.  That's 7826 GBP (10173 USD at current exchange rates).  How many programs, in any country, save that much money per person?

Ironically, that is the most palatable argument you can make about taxes to a libertarian (or my younger Ayn Randian self):  Something saves tax money, and reduces the tax burden on people.

Now, about a single-payer national health care system....


  1. You better watch out propagating all these radical ideas. You're gonna get blacklisted by the man. I feel a social movement starting at "Mid-life Cycling".

    As for single payer national health care service, just imagine the leverage it would have over Big Pharma. I'm sure drug company execs soil themselves whenever they think of it.

  2. Phillip--I'm getting to be so subversive in middle age. Was that supposed to happen?

    Big Pharma is indeed one of the things that's kept us from having a single payer national health care service. So is the insurance industry.

    1. "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now". To quote Robert Zimmerman.😃

  3. "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

    I can't find the source of this quote.


  4. Leo--I remember seeing that quote somewhere, too--I don't remember where, though.

    Phillip--Ah, yes, Mr. Zimmerman.