A tax on time

A couple of more theoretical notes on a beautiful Saturday morning when I ought to be outside.

First, an insightful observation from Tom Worstall of the arch-libertarian Adam Smith Institute, on how not all taxes are financial:

Households that fail to recycle most of their rubbish will face a “fine” of £30 a year under Government plans to cut waste unveiled yesterday.

Of course there are those pointing out that this isn’t either a tax or a “fine”. Rather, it’s a rebate if you do recycle, something you don’t get if you don’t.

However, the entire scheme is still in fact a tax. It’s a tax upon your time… [J]ust because it’s a tax on your time rather than your money doesn’t make it any less of one.

Last year, the City of Ottawa where I live was struggling with its municipal recycling program: rather than collect basically all plastics and sort them out at a depot, the city council changed the rules so that only some plastics would be collected — there was no market for the others. Citizens were asked to examine all their potentially recyclable plastics to find the little number that identified what sort of plastic each was, and only drop an item into the bin if it was a No. 1 or 2; plastics Nos. 3 through 7 would not be collected.

This is reasonably easy to remember, if you want to make the effort, but of course a lot of people didn’t. Furthermore, the city decided not to emphasize the numbers, but published lists of the sorts of things that made acceptable and unacceptable recycling and — lists in which not even people of goodwill could discern a pattern.

So you had two options for complying with the city’s demands: spend a lot of time peering at your plastic containers looking for often-hard-to-find numbers, or memorize two seemingly arbitrary lists of recyclables and non-recyclables. Most people gave up and either tossed all their plastics in the bin in the expectation the city would sort it out, or tossed all their plastics in the garbage. Finally, the city relented and resumed doing a lot of the sorting, and also found markets for some of the recyclables it had previously not been able to sell.

From the city’s perspective, asking citizens to do this wasn’t any big thing — officials acknowledged it’d be a little inconvenient at first, but assumed residents would adapt. If they’d thought of the move as imposing a tax on people’s time, they might well have thought differently about the consequences.


2 responses to “A tax on time

  1. “arch-libertarian”?

    Classically liberal, please: buit I agree that the words have similar meanings on different sides of The Pond.

  2. Point taken, though I may someday say it again. I meant the term with a certain degree of respect for the purity of the institute’s convictions.

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