Highway Robbery

Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles .
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

I was raised in Maryland, a state rich in history, culture, opportunity, natural wonders and recreation. I do love it, and live there still. Yet I’ve always imagined that someday I might move to another state — one that seems to me more like the America our Constitution’s framers might’ve envisioned would exist more than two centuries after they took up arms to establish it.

A freer, less bureaucratic, more rugged and individualistic place.

This notion — that I might one day pick a new home state — is always in the back of my mind as I’ve roamed parts of this great country of ours. When traveling for business or pleasure, I’m always thinking to myself: Does this place feel like what I imagine America should?

I’ve found different parts of this feeling in various cities and states: Freedom-loving New Hampshire and rugged, unspoiled Maine; libertine Las Vegas, Nevada and New Orleans, Louisiana; misty, mountainous western North Carolina and West Virginia; the rolling bourbon and horse country of Kentucky; bluesy, lyrical Austin and two-stepping Houston, Texas; diverse and scenic San Francisco and Monterey, California; in the underrated waterfront of Cleveland, Ohio and in no-sales-tax Delaware…

But atop this list, always, has been Virginia. In my eyes, right or wrong, Virginia just seemed so romantic, so beautiful, so rich in history, and so free . Whenever I’ve visited this soul of the American south — from the vineyards of her northern hills to the caves of her rugged west to the majestic homes of Washington, Jefferson and Madison to the quaint seaside charm of the Hampton Roads — I have been under the Old Dominion State’s spell…

No longer, though. As of July 1 of this year, I have crossed Virginia off my list of places in which I’d one day consider living. That’s the day I realized that the one state which should arguably embody American principles and freedoms, more than any other, has been utterly overrun by the greed and corruption of big government and special interests.

And it’s a harbinger of things to come in YOUR state, I’m predicting.

Virginia is for Levies

A word of preface, here. In a minute, some of you may grimace a little when you fail to intuit the bigger meaning in what — on the face of it — may seem like a relatively small gripe with an abuse of governmental power. I ask you folks to bear with me until the end, when you’ll see what I’ve got my underwear in such a wad about. Others among you will no doubt be outraged immediately, as I was, so no such caveat is needed. Either way, on with my expose`…

Registering hardly a blip on the mainstream media’s radar (no pun intended), a new law took effect on July 1 of this year that imposes what’s been creatively named a “driver responsibility tax” on Virginia residents who are convicted of any type of motor vehicle violation. Depending on the offense, this penalty ranges from $750 to as much as $3000 — on top of the normal fines.

These piggyback taxes, payable by violators over a period of three years (nice of them, huh?), positively dwarf the already-stiff fines and administrative fees which typically accompany moving violations in the Old Dominion State. A few examples:

A 20-MPH-over-limit speeding conviction — Normal cost: Around $261 in fines and court costs. The new law tacks an additional $1,050 on top of this…

A first-time DWI conviction — Normal cost: Around $500. Under the new law, this would cost you a combined $2,750

A single occurrence of driving without a license — normally, around $100. Now, somewhere north of $1,000

In addition to these kinds of obscenely punitive “per offense” taxes, Virginia is now also imposing a $75 yearly tax on the individual accumulated points on residents’ drivers licenses — with some types of these convictions lingering on records for as long as 11 years . Virginia lawmakers claim that this blatant highway robbery is necessary to generate more than $1 billion in money for highway improvements. The measure is expected to rake in $60 to $100 million in extra tax revenue every year.

But as you’ll see in a moment, these new taxes aren’t about enhancing Virginians’ lives or making their roads faster or safer at all. As usual, it’s about making a bunch of greedy lawyers and politicians (they’re often the same, remember) even richer and more powerful than they already are…

And odds are, the same kind of high jinks could soon be headed to wherever YOU live.

Yes, Virginia, There IS a Boogeyman

This draconian “driver responsibility tax” was tacked onto a larger transportation funding bill signed in April by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. Its sponsor was a state Delegate named David Albo…

I mention these specifics because the evolution of this particular legislation offers us a pretty transparent illustration of just why a lot of modern laws get passed — and it has nothing to do with your best interests in any way. As it turns out, Albo is a senior partner in a law firm that specializes in TRAFFIC CASES.

Now, how do you think his personal bottom line is going to be affected by a law that all of a sudden makes it extremely financially punitive to receive a traffic ticket? Think Virginians won’t hire more attorneys in hopes of securing innocent verdicts on thousands of $1,000-$3,500 traffic offenses?

Wouldn’t you?

This radical change in the law isn’t serving just one attorney’s greed, however. I see the fingerprints of Virginia’s entire trial lawyer lobby all over this. Think about how much business these guys have to gain from over $1 billion in traffic tickets over the next decade or so. Consider also what a strain this will put on Virginia’s court system — paid for, of course, by tax dollars.

But worse than lining the pockets of lawyers and disproportionately fleecing those who can least afford it (blue-collar, high-mileage drivers like truckers, couriers, cabbies, and pizza guys), this new “driver responsibility tax” may actually make all those slick new lanes of pavement it’s paying for more dangerous and less democratic

Breeding Crime — on Both Sides of the Law

Think about this for a second…

I want you to go back in time in your mind to when you were a teenager. If you’re like a lot of people, you scrimped and saved for some clunker car and the minimum-coverage liability insurance to go with it. You also probably drove a bit too recklessly (I did), and were a pretty likely candidate for a speeding ticket or other kind of moving violation.

Now, imagine that a single ticket — instead of merely swiping a few week’s wages at your summer job — were more costly to your bottom line than your car and insurance combined…

Think you’d have been tempted to run from the cops instead of pulling over when you saw those cherries in the rear-view — especially if to be cited meant no longer being able to afford to drive? And of course, if YOU wouldn’t have run, I’ll bet you know a handful of your buddies that would’ve (or did).

My point is this: People of limited means, both teens and adults, are likely to do stupid, reckless, and dangerous things behind the wheel to avoid unreasonable penalties for petty traffic crimes that they’d ordinarily simply absorb with a little grumbling. Especially when — as it is under the new Virginia law — the “tax” on a criminal charge of evading police ($900) is LESS than the tax on a speeding ticket ($1,050-$3,000), a failure-to-signal citation ($1,050), or a misdemeanor first-time DWI offense ($2,250)…

See how this draconian Virginia law would likely contribute to MORE reckless and potentially deadly driving among a class of drivers LEAST likely to be adequately insured against the damages they may cause in the event of an accident?

Beyond this, it’s my opinion that these punitive new taxes will almost certainly breed a kind of “profiling” among traffic cops — something that’s supposed to be illegal. Here’s what I mean:

You’re a Virginia highway patrolman confronted with two speeders in adjacent lanes, both going the same speed — 80 MPH in a 65 MPH zone, good for around $3,500 in total penalties in some cases. Needless to say, you can’t pull them both over. So, are you more likely to pull over the black ‘07 Mercedes coupe worth $100 grand or the primer-gray ‘82 Chevy pickup worth 100 bucks?

I’m betting that the Benz gets the ticket every time. Cops are people, too, and subject to pangs of guilt at writing such ridiculously costly citations. It stands to reason that they’d cite those they think are best able to afford it. It’s also not inconceivable that they may even be INSTRUCTED to do so by their departments, to ease the chance of defaults, relocations, or even extended trial/appeals processes…

Forget for a moment that the victims of this kind of profiling would be the upper-crust people that have a lot of advantages in many areas of life — or that they can afford such targeting. It would still be undemocratic and illegal to do so.

Like it or not, these outcomes — richer lawyers, more hazardous roads, and profiling cops — are the logical results of the July 1 Virginia traffic revenue law.

Sound like the work of good, selfless, objective American politicians to you?

Rise of the “Crime Tax”

These kinds of driver-conduct taxes aren’t new — NY, NJ, MI, TX have variations on this theme already, albeit their versions aren’t nearly so extreme. Having not lived in any of those states, I didn’t know this. When initially researching this article, I assumed that Virginia was breaking new ground here.

But discovering that it isn’t is almost more distressing to me. That means a good number of Americans are already accepting a blurring of the lines between criminal fines and taxation…

In other words, we’re increasingly accepting of the fact that our government has found a whole new universe of ways to tax us. Politicians are discovering that they can anchor funding for their needless low-wage job creation programs (like highway maintenance) and other such pork to the commission of petty crimes. They learned that the guilty won’t complain about taxes disguised as punishment.

What I’m predicting will follow soon across the fruited plain is a snowball effect of more needless laws regulating us…

Designed solely to create more infractions…

To generate more revenue from piggybacked taxes on petty crime…

That can then be spent on expanding government — or given to the illegal, addicted, or undeserving!

Readers, I ask you: Where should I move? One day, when I’ve had it up to here with all of this nonsense, where can I live that it’s still America? Seriously, write in and tell me about where you live, if you like it.

I’m looking for a place where the system has evolved to be even more inclusive and fairer to all — yet one that hasn’t lost the uniquely American essence of not only toleration, but fair-market competition between divergent ideas, people, and beliefs…

A place where people are fiercely proud of their heritages and identities — yet prouder still to be united in legal citizenship of a nation that allows all that’s great about who they are and where they came from to flourish unfettered by needless regulation or taxation…

A place where folks are incentivized by government to achieve, and where advantages and penalties aren’t conferred based on color or background or sex or religion — but on merit and a demonstrated willingness and ability to help oneself…

And a place where fines fit crimes, not politicians’ agendas.

Jim Amrhein

Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

July 31, 2007

The Daily Reckoning