About a year ago, the government was all in a lather about extending the gasoline tax. Local governments and the ruling coalition, not to mention interested bureaucracies, wanted to continue the tax because they said the revenues were necessary to build more roads. Opposition parties were against the extension, saying they wanted to reduce gasoline prices, which were the highest they’d ever been.

The opposition camp mainly wanted to force a deadlock on the budget so as to precipitate a snap election. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party thus had to find ways of justifying the tax in the face of consumer opposition, and the government tied itself into knots doing so. One of these knots was environmental in nature. Then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said that the gasoline tax was also a kind of green tax; if it were removed, gas prices would fall and traffic would increase along with carbon-dioxide emissions. When it was pointed out that such a justification didn’t make sense since the tax went to building more roads — which, in theory, encourages more driving — the LDP said that more roads means less traffic congestion and thus less wasted fuel.

This logic may sound self-serving, but it’s practically Einsteinian compared to the reasoning behind the road-toll reductions that went into effect last weekend. The toll cuts, based on an idea that you can travel almost anywhere in Japan on a national expressway and not pay more than ¥1,000, were originally proposed to alleviate some of the pain inflicted by high gas prices, but those prices eventually dropped as a result of the global economic meltdown. Still, once a notion is lodged in the government’s collective consciousness, it’s difficult to remove, so somehow the purpose of the toll reductions has been changed to that of economic stimulus, the idea being that if tolls are cut, more people will drive long distances and spend money in places they wouldn’t visit otherwise.

Disregarding the not insignificant environmental question, there’s nothing wrong with this plan per se, but the way it’s been implemented so far indicates once again that the government never comes up with a policy that doesn’t benefit itself first.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan has said that if the DPJ becomes the ruling party it will make all toll roads free. The LDP’s response to this pledge was to ask, “How will highway maintenance be funded?” That’s a good question, and one the LDP no longer finds any use for. Even though the new plan doesn’t eliminate tolls completely, the government has had to allocate ¥500 billion to pay for it, which means all taxpayers are subsidizing the weekend leisure activities of car owners.

One reason the government can’t completely eliminate tolls is the Electronic Toll Collection system. As the DPJ has pointed out, if all roads were free you wouldn’t need ETC at all, but there are people whose livelihoods depend on ETC, and most of them work for highway-related bureaucratic entities, which have basically cobbled together a toll-cut scheme that ensures their continued existence. What’s more, since drivers can’t take advantage of the reduced tolls without ETC, more of them will have the devices installed in their cars, thus reinforcing these bureaucracies’ positions. That’s why the government agreed to subsidize purchases of ETC devices before the toll-cut system went into effect.

T he makeshift nature of the plan is exemplified by the fact that demand immediately outstripped supply. Until the toll-cut scheme was announced, a sizable portion of the nation’s cars didn’t use ETC because it seemed an unnecessary expense unless you drove on expressways often and needed an itemized accounting of your tolls for business reasons. But, of course, commercial vehicles don’t benefit from the toll-cut scheme because it is mainly in effect on weekends and larger vehicles don’t qualify.

The media’s main focus so far has been on traffic congestion. Last weekend, every news program had helicopters hovering over the expressways, while back in the studios pundits wondered if the traffic jams were longer than usual. But the big question was whether or not this was a bad thing. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that motorists weren’t getting the most out of the new system. One TBS cameraman rode along with a family who spent five hours in their car just trying to get from Tokyo to Chiba.

But the government saw it as a good thing, saying that the long lines of cars meant that people were going places and stimulating local economies. That is debatable. The only economies that you can say for sure benefited last weekend were those of highway service areas, which happen to be run by a subsidiary of the Japan Highway Public Corporation; in other words, a bureaucratic entity. The Asahi Shimbun indicated it found little proof that the scheme would benefit local businesses. The mayor of a small town in Chiba expressed concern that town residents would use the highway discounts to go shopping in Tokyo and Yokohama.

The real irony turns out to be that the congestion wasn’t as bad (or good) as the media first reported it to be. The Asahi later analyzed the data and found that the number of automobiles on the highways was only about 10 percent more than usual, which means congestion was “normal.” The real test will come during Golden Week at the end of April. If “normal” means sitting in a car for five hours in order to travel to the next prefecture, then what adjective will the media use to describe holiday gridlock? Back in 2000, ETC was introduced to lackluster sales with the publicized purpose of making traffic flow more smoothly. Now, there are waiting lists for ETC devices, and highway traffic will likely become less smooth as more people install them. That’s the logic of progress.

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