Every serious person knows that climate change is the greatest threat facing the world right now. Everyone also ought to know that air pollution is a big cause of premature death in our cities. Both climate change and pollution need to be addressed with bold policies if we are to have any hope of averting disaster.
So I welcomed French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to increase fuel taxes, particularly on diesel, which emits extremely harmful carbon monoxide. But to put it mildly, the people of France did not. Violent protests sprung up all over the country. While a hardcore minority of the protesters were far-right street thugs, most were middle-aged suburbanites voicing their opposition to a policy which will increase the cost of living.
In fairness, the protests were not just about fuel taxes. Macron’s popularity has been in long-term decline, and stands at just 27%. He is seen by most as out of touch, elitist and urban-centric- unconcerned with the plight of La France Périphérique: the French equivalent of flyover country in the US. France is already amongst the most highly-taxed countries on earth. The economic boom Macron promised in his presidential campaign has failed to materialise. More importantly, French people are cynical about politicians on all sides of the political spectrum; no one enjoys anything close to a positive approval rating.
The anti-Macron movement poses difficult questions for the progressive left, even outside France. Sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t always popular. Progressives claim to have majority support on most economic issues, such as raising the minimum wage or regulating large corporations. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Most people support the notion of higher taxes to achieve certain social goods, like reducing poverty or cutting air pollution, provided they believe they won’t be affected. As soon as they have to pay higher taxes, their views become more conservative, however noble the objective of the tax increase may be. A similar phenomenon can be found in California’s Orange County, which elected only Democrats to Congress for the first time ever, yet rejected measures to improve housing affordability because it might dent home values. It’s much easier to be charitable with other people’s money.
None of this is to suggest progressives should stop caring about climate change, air pollution, poverty or housing affordability as soon as some middle class voters raise objections. But it’s vital to be intelligent about progressive policy, so as not to hurt the middle class or appear elitist. For instance, Macron could’ve opted for a broader carbon tax instead of a narrow increase in fuel taxes. A carbon tax would be more progressive, because a larger proportion of it would be paid for by corporations and industrialists. It would have a broader base, so as not to hurt any one sector too hard. And it wouldn’t have as immediate an effect on the cost of living. Moreover, in France’s case, any increase in tax should be offset by a decrease in tax elsewhere, so as not to burden the people more. Perhaps Macron should’ve used the higher revenues from fuel taxes to cut sales taxes, just as an example. The point is that in an era where the nationalist right will pounce on every opportunity to portray progressives as liberal elitists, ensuring the happiness of the common man must be as important as achieving progressive policy goals.