From sugar taxes to bicycle lanes to shanks's pony: what next?
Trust the ancien régime at the Johannesburg City Council. Just as "Uber" taxis and driverless cars promise the greatest revolution in motorised transport since the advent of the motor car itself, it budgeted to spend R250 million on bicycle lanes.
According to the executive director of transport for the city, nine sets of bicycle lanes were being installed as part of the city's plans to "return to the future - walking". Privately owned vehicles "are a definite no-no". She complained that people drove instead of walked to the corner shop. People who went to the gym even parked their cars as close to the entrance as possible, "giving themselves very little time and space to walk". Ag shame.
This is precisely the Big Sister mentality that is also bringing us the sugar tax, which will supposedly trim 3.8% of your average male. No doubt some "scientist" will soon discover that a wheat tax will cut off another x%, a potato tax y%, and a salt tax z%.
Big Brother in the form of Parks Tau, when he was still mayor, waxed lyrical about "pedalling to a greener future". Office workers in Rosebank would swap their car keys for helmets. Young professionals from Diepkloof "would invest in sleek two-wheelers and modern gear". Mothers from Eldorado Park would pedal their way to the shops. Children from Lenasia and Bedfordview would cycle to school every morning. "Cycling" would be made a "cool activity". Johannesburg would "grow a movement of eco-mobility champions". Naturally, in line with Mr Tau's wasteful pretensions we had a costly "eco-mobility world festival" a year ago in Sandton to match.
They took a year to build a "bicycle lane" joining the University of Johannesburg to Wits to Doornfontein. Even before some of it collapsed, nobody was using it except motorists to park their cars or taxis to overtake on the left. Build a cycle lane and the cyclists will ride in was the assumption - just like the assumption behind those white-elephant airports in India that are still waiting for aeroplanes and passengers.
Fortunately, Johannesburg's new mayor, Herman Mashaba of the Democratic Alliance, has put a stop to the bicycle lanes project. On this, it appears, he has the support of the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose leader, Julius Malema, points out that Johannesburg does not have a bicycle culture. Nor will it get one without a hugely more extensive, efficient, predictable, and safer public transport system.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging cycling either as a hobby or as a mode of transport.
But the private motor car has done as much for freedom of movement around the world as have all the guaranteed constitutional rights to such freedom. And the advent of Uber and the driverless car will in due course help to limit congestion by making individual car ownership redundant for more and more people - provided, of course, that politicians and bureaucrats disdainful of individual freedom do not thwart the use of this new technology.
In the last century, ideologues seeking to control people did so in the name of nation, race, or class. Today we have eco-fanatics, automobile haters, and obesity police ordering us about because "it is for your own good". You must ride or walk to work because it makes you healthy. You must not eat this or that because it will make you fat. You must take more exercise to avoid lifestyle diseases. If you do not follow their dictates, there will be a drop in life expectancy and "devastating consequences for the economy".
Exhortation is fine. But too often it is accompanied by more taxes, or wasteful expenditure, or coercion in one form or another. Big Brother and Big Sister have forgotten that adult citizens in democracies and free societies are entitled to make choices, and to have their choices respected, not punished by tax or regulation.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.