Why we pay more at the pump

The lack of malapportionment in Israel's democracy contributes to the ever-rising price of gas.

Person filling car gas tank 370  (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Person filling car gas tank 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
This past Saturday night, at 11:20pm, I pulled into my local gas station. Normally at that hour there might be one or two other cars, but this time the place was packed: lines at every pump as roughly a dozen cars descended on the place. All of us wanted to fill our tanks at the last moment before gasoline prices rose at midnight by yet another 30 agorot per liter (30 US cents per gallon).
With gas prices now at a record high of 8.25 shekels per liter (about $8.25 per gallon, though for 95 octane), journalists have been quick to remind us that we pay more at the pump than in most other countries.
But why?
The answer, in a word: malapportionment. Or in Israel’s case, a lack thereof.
Malapportionment is when legislatures are divided into geographic constituencies which are not equally divided by population.
A classic example is the US Senate, where the 190,000 Wyomingites (yes, a real word) who voted in 2010 had as much influence as the almost 11 million Californians who cast ballots that year. So while in theory American democracy (like all democracies) is based on the idea of “one man one vote,” a Wyomingite’s vote was 56 times more influential than that of his fellow citizen in California.
Voting for the Knesset, by contrast, is done with only one, nation-wide constituency. As a result, we have zero malapportionment. (Don’t laugh, but in a sense it means we have a “perfect” democracy.)
Enter Daniel Maliniak and Lawrence Broz, two good friends of mine at the University of California, San Diego. In a piece of first-rate research, they demonstrate that the difference in gasoline taxes (and consequently, total cost per liter) among the industrialized democracies is largely determined by the degree of malapportionment in a given country.
Their argument is that in democracies which have greater degrees of malapportionment, rural voters generally get a bigger say on deciding policy than their urban counterparts.
Although it is true that we all share an interest in lower gasoline prices, for residents of rural areas, low gas prices are crucial. First, urbanites have alternatives to driving (subways, trains, buses, bicycles, walking) whereas rural residents often do not. Second, because everything is much closer in a city, urbanites also tend to drive much less than those living in rural areas.
As a result, that average Wyomingite—three-quarters of whom live in rural areas—uses about 600 gallons of gasoline per year. The average Californian, 90 percent of whom live in urban centers, only uses about 400 gallons. (In an urban center with excellent public transportation, like Washington, DC, that number drops to just over 200.)
So if low gas prices are more important to those in the countryside, when rural residents have a disproportionate amount of political power, they use it to make sure gas taxes (and thus, gas prices) stay low.
It does not end here. Maliniak and Broz go on to demonstrate that the stronger the “rural bias” a democracy has, the less likely it is to sign on to environmental treaties aimed at climate change like Kyoto. Maliniak’s current research further suggests that the stronger the rural bias, the larger a country’s agriculture subsidies will be and the higher the agricultural trade tariffs.
Proponents of changing the system of governance in Israel may look at this as additional evidence to support their aims. A deeper consideration of the issue, however, suggests just the opposite: high gasoline taxes in this country are not the product of laws set by some dictator, but by democratically elected representatives, who at the end of the day, believe they are doing what is in the public’s interest. Higher gas prices promote the use of public transportation, reduce road congestion, improve the quality of the air we breathe, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce.
That countries like Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Canada, and the United States keep their gasoline prices low is not because it is in those countries’ best interest, but rather because it is good for a small portion of the population who have excessive influence on the democratic process.
The writer is Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.