Ryan McMaken – January 5, 2019
The so-called “Yellow Vest” protests that have sprung up in France in recent weeks now involve a variety of domestic policy issues. But they were triggered by a new tax on fuel prices. French residents from the less-prosperous countryside, where driving an automobile is required, took to the streets to protest yet one more burden placed on them to please French and European politicians.
The protests have been so vehement that the French government has already decided to scrap the tax for the time being.
Some news outlets have taken to calling the protests “cost-of-living protests,” reflecting “wider discontent” over rising prices. Moreover, the unemployment rate in France has ranged from 9 percent to ten percent over most of the past decade. According to the Institut Économique Molinari, the tax burden on “typical workers” in France is higher than anywhere else in Europe.
Although discontent with this situation has apparently caught French president Emmanuel Macron and other politicians off guard, it shouldn’t be a surprise that yet another bump to France’s high cost of living has ignited protests.
The Philosophy of Climate-Change Policy
After all, climate-change policy has always been largely about forcing people to consume less by raising the cost of living.
Behind the climate-change policy schemes — which are usually a form of emissions-reduction policy — the central idea is to get people to either consume less of the wrong type of energy. Or to consume less energy overall.
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The two ways this is most commonly done is by subsidizing and promoting low-emissions forms of energy, and by straight-up taxing energy consumption.
The promotion of low-emission energy is done through government regulations and through subsidies of low-carbon energy sources. Both involve imposing higher costs on ordinary people. They require tax revenue for the subsidies, while the regulations drive up the cost of producing goods and services.
Meanwhile, carbon taxes drive up the cost of heating one’s home, running one’s business, or driving the kids to school.
This sort of thing, of course, has never been much of a problem for the wealthy backers of these plans. They already live so far above subsistence levels, and so far above the “middle class” lifestyle, that a few more taxes in the service of their ideological hobbyhorse strikes them as perfectly reasonable. To them, a carbon tax is little more than a small surcharge on the fuel necessary to jet off to yet another junket with politician friends, or yet another vacation in a tropical land.
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For ordinary people, though, the costs of higher energy taxes are very real indeed — both in the rich countries and in the so-called “developing” world.
This is why global-warming rhetoric is more often than not apocalyptic in nature. Advocates know they’re just pushing to drive up your cost of living. So they claim that if the voters and taxpayers don’t give them what they want, all humanity will be destroyed. The stakes must be placed very high, or ordinary workers struggling to afford a few more modest gifts at Christmas time are unlikely to play along.
But that approach doesn’t seem to be working at the moment.
The promise of saving the world from a predicted climate apocalypse is apparently unconvincing to French workers and families who are worried about things going on right now.
Is It Really about Taxes?
While the protests began as a tax protest, grievances expressed by protestors have now expanded to other areas. Thus, some observers will claim that the protests aren’t really about a tax hike, but are just yet another attempt to get more government favors.
This is no doubt true for some protestors. After all, some protestors are now openly demanding increases for their government salaries. But if that were the primary crux of the matter, then the government wouldn’t have retreated so fast on the new energy taxes. And politicos wouldn’t be pointing to planned tax cuts in 2019 as proof of their concern for the people of France.
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The proposed new energy tax, perceived by many as just the latest burden to be borne by French families with stagnating real wages, is a real reason to be upset. For many French households, the economy has reached a plateau, and the last thing they need is another tax. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that this discontent will extend to any meaningful critique of France’s very state-centric policy regime with its high taxes, numerous trade controls, and countless government regulations. It is this regime, after all, which has created the malaise that now plagues the overtaxed and often-unemployed workers of France.
But, the fact that the climate change rationale has failed as a means of forcing a tax increase on the French population might be a wake-up call for various governments worldwide. It might be one thing if the global economy were catapulting the global middle classes to new heights of prosperity and financial independence. Taxpayers might then be quite a bit more amenable to a carbon tax or new subsidy. But while economies and economic growth look great on paper, many households today continue to wonder where the real economic growth is.
This article was originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.