Here in the Seattle area, there are two bridges that take you from the Eastside suburbs, across Lake Washington to the city of Seattle. The bridges are usually jammed during rush hour, with people commuting to work in Seattle or the Eastside (Microsoft and Google are on the Eastside.)
But, for the past few months, one of the bridges, the 520 bridge, has had a toll of 2 to 5 dollars on it, to help pay for its eventual replacement by a new bridge. I now love taking the 520, since it’s now much less congested, and I can afford the toll. But liberals, obviously, hate it:
Technologically, the system is a marvel. There are no tollbooths. Indeed, there is no sign at all that this is a toll road except for actual signs that say so. The toll is collected in myriad ways. You can sign up for an account and get a little coded sticker for your windshield. Or you can wait until they bill you, using your license plate to track you down. Apparently, it works. Unless your commute is between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., in which case it’s free, you can’t escape.
But the big problem with the new toll is that it is another small chipping away at our shared life as citizens, and another area where money makes the difference. It used to be that no matter how rich you were, there were some things you couldn’t buy your way out of. Rush-hour congestion was one of them. The law, in its majesty, decreed that rich and poor alike would be stuck in traffic. I once heard Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft and worth many billions of dollars, talking about his strategy for outfoxing the dreaded 520. I tried it. It didn’t work.
As explained by philosopher Michael Walzer, and somewhat more entertainingly by my friend Mickey Kaus (in his book “The End of Equality”), there are two ways to deal with financial inequality (if it bothers you, that is). One is to reduce it, through the tax system. The other is to make money less important. Create national parks, open to everybody. Restore universal military service. And so on.
By this way of thinking, the two bridges side by side, one costly to use and one free, constitute a small step backward, toward making money more important. You might say, wait a minute. What if there already was a toll on both bridges, and it was lifted on one so that people willing to put up with crowds could go across for free? That wouldn’t seem iniquitous, would it? But it’s the same thing, really.
And I would say, great point! Let’s continue this discussion over a drink downtown. And you would look at your watch and say, it’s too late. We’ll never make it across the bridge before dinner time.