A new rule kicks in today requiring airlines to include all taxes and mandatory fees in their advertised fares. The rule, part of a broader “passengers’ bill of rights”-type regulation promulgated by the Department of Transportation, is being sold as a proconsumer mandate: It purportedly protects consumers from the sticker shock that results when they learn that the true consumer price for a flight, due to taxes and mandatory fees, is much higher than the advertised price.
But how consumer-friendly is this rule? Won’t it be easier to raise taxes and fees when they aren’t presented as a line item, when consumers aren’t “startled” to see the exorbitant amount they’re paying for government services? Value-added taxes (VATs), which tax the incremental value added at each stage of production and are generally included in the posted price for an item, have proven easier to raise than sales taxes, which are added at the register. That’s because the latter are more visible so that increases are more likely to generate political opposition. While VATs are common throughout Europe, they’re virtually non-existent in the United States, in part because we Americans have recognized the important role “tax sticker shock” plays in creating political accountability.
Consumer advocates, nevertheless, are lauding the new Department of Transportation rule. They don’t seem to realize that higher taxes are bad for consumers and that taxes are more likely to rise when the government can hide them. They also seem to care little about consumer sovereignty. Don’t consumers have a right to know how much they’re paying to have scads of Homeland Security officers bark orders at them and gawk at their privates?