- - Sunday, November 17, 2013

In 1973, Richard Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive” imagined a future in which increasingly stringent vehicle regulations had rendered all conventional automobiles illegal in favor of government-approved monstrosities. The story was meant as a warning against the dangers of creeping, incremental regulations that seem harmless at first, but are cumulatively tyrannical.

Forty years later, our own Foster-esque scenario is playing out with the prospect of a little black box on your car’s dashboard that would transmit your vehicle-use data to a government tax collector. This is what some in Washington and various state legislatures are proposing as a way to bolster revenues for the struggling Highway Trust Fund, now running a structural deficit of around $15 billion.

By taxing drivers based on how far they drive, the amount each individual pays to maintain the roads would directly correspond with how much they use them. It’s not so much a tax as a “user fee” that is both economically efficient and lacks the redistributive component of most taxes. These features make it an improvement over the gas tax, which, in addition to being politically unpopular, taxes in a way that imperfectly corresponds with how much people actually drive.

Economics aside, though, there are some serious concerns about the black-box proposal, not the least of which are the obvious concerns about the erosion of civil liberties. The chief implication of installing these black boxes is that the government will know where you are at all times, and will be able to track every movement of your vehicle. It sounds Orwellian, doesn’t it? Although we may be willing to voluntarily surrender personal details via a Facebook account or Twitter feed, the thought that government can track our movements against our will is not a particularly cheery one.

Already, the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” crowd is ramping up to dismiss such privacy concerns as paranoid and unfounded. Yet if the recent scandals involving the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program and the Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of Tea Party groups has taught us anything, it is that granting these kinds of blanket powers to federal agencies all but guarantees eventual abuse. When NSA employees are already using their powers to spy on love interests, how much more privacy will we lose when tax collectors can access our physical location at the touch of a button?

This idea is distinct from the now-standard inclusion of GPS navigation systems in cars or mobile devices like the iPad, which could allow some enterprising hacker to track you down if he were willing to spend the time and effort. The expressed purpose of the black boxes is to collect data and send it directly to the government. Unlike smartphone or GPS owners, the government’s customers have no option to discontinue service or seek out competitive alternatives if they feel their privacy is being violated.

If we allow the government to install these black boxes in our cars, we may be forced to reconsider the nature of ownership as well. When faced with a new tax, most people’s first instinct will be to look for a way to avoid paying. This means that there would have to be strict laws against tampering with the black box, as well as frequent inspections to ensure that these laws are not being violated. Do we really own our cars if we are not allowed to modify them? Used and classic cars will have to be brought in and refitted with the new technology, if not banned outright from the roads, restricting people’s ability to choose their own vehicles.

While some libertarians have endorsed the black-box idea on the grounds of economic efficiency and the lack of a redistributive effect, there remain serious ethical concerns over granting the federal government yet more authority to track our movements, especially when the admitted end goal is to improve its ability to tax.

While we do need to come up with a way to continue to pay for our nation’s roads, using a box to track every mile we drive is not the right solution. If we don’t act to avoid it, we’ll have the watchful eye of government knowing exactly where we are, what we’re doing and how many miles it takes to get there.

Adam Brandon is executive vice president of FreedomWorks.

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