MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Consumption Tax: A Critique

Posted by M. C. on June 27, 2022

The Alleged Superiority of the Income Tax

Murray N. Rothbard

tax burden

We were assured by one and all, at the time, that this new withholding tax was strictly limited to the wartime emergency, and would disappear at the arrival of peace. The rest, alas, is history. But the point is that no one can seriously maintain that an income tax deprived of withholding power could be collected at its present high levels.

The consumption tax, on the other hand, can only be regarded as a payment for permission-to-live. It implies that a man will not be allowed to advance or even sustain his own life unless he pays, off the top, a fee to the State for permission to do so. The consumption tax does not strike me, in its philosophical implications, as one whit more noble, or less presumptuous, than the income tax.

https://mises.org/library/consumption-tax-critique

Orthodox neoclassical economics has long maintained that, from the point of view of the taxed themselves, an income tax is “better than” an excise tax on a particular form of consumption, since, in addition to the total revenue extracted, which is assumed to be the same in both cases, the excise tax weights the levy heavily against a particular consumer good. In addition to the total amount levied, therefore, an excise tax skews and distorts spending and resources away from the consumers’ preferred consumption patterns. Indifference curves are trotted out with a flourish to lend the scientific patina of geometry to this demonstration.

As in many other cases when economists rush to judge various courses of action as “good,” “superior,” or “optimal,” however, the ceteris paribus assumptions underlying such judgments—in this case, for example, that total revenue remains the same—do not always hold up in real life. Thus, it is certainly possible, for political or other reasons, that one particular form of tax is not likely to result in the same total revenue as another. The nature of a particular tax might lead to less or more revenue than another tax. Suppose, for example, that all present taxes are abolished and that the same total is to be raised from a new capitation, or head, tax, which requires that every inhabitant of the United States pay an equal amount to the support of federal, state, and local government. This would mean that the existing total government revenue of the United States, which we estimate at $1.38 trillion—and here exact figures are not important—would have to be divided between an approximate total of 243 million people. Which would mean that every man, woman, and child in America would be required to pay to government each and every year, $5,680. Somehow, I don’t believe that anything like this large a sum could be collectible by the authorities, no matter how many enforcement powers are granted the IRS. A clear example where the ceteris paribus assumption flagrantly breaks down.

But a more important, if less dramatic, example is nearer at hand. Before World War II, Internal Revenue collected the full amount, in one lump sum, from every taxpayer, on March 15 of each year. (A month’s extension was later granted to the long-suffering taxpayers.) During World War II, in order to permit an easier and far-smoother collection of the far-higher tax rates for financing the war effort, the federal government instituted a plan conceived by the ubiquitous Beardsley Ruml of R.H. Macy & Co., and technically implemented by a bright young economist at the Treasury Department, Milton Friedman. This plan, as all of us know only too well, coerced every employer into the unpaid labor of withholding the tax each month from the employee’s paycheck and delivering it to the Treasury. As a result, there was no longer a need for the taxpayer to cough up the total amount in a lump sum each year. We were assured by one and all, at the time, that this new withholding tax was strictly limited to the wartime emergency, and would disappear at the arrival of peace. The rest, alas, is history. But the point is that no one can seriously maintain that an income tax deprived of withholding power could be collected at its present high levels.

One reason, therefore, that an economist cannot claim that the income tax, or any other tax, is better from the point of view of the taxed person, is that total revenue collected is often a function of the type of tax imposed. And it would seem that, from the point of view of the taxed person, the less extracted from him the better. Even indifference-curve analysis would have to confirm that conclusion. If someone wishes to claim that a taxed person is disappointed at how little tax he is asked to pay, that person is always free to make up the alleged deficiency by making a voluntary gift to the bewildered but happy taxing authorities.1

A second insuperable problem with an economist’s recommending any form of tax from the alleged point of view of the taxee, is that the taxpayer may well have particular subjective evaluations of the form of tax, apart from the total amount levied. Even if the total revenue extracted from him is the same for tax A and tax B, he may have very different subjective evaluations of the two taxing processes. Let us return, for example, to our case of the income as compared to an excise tax. Income taxes are collected in the course of a coercive and even brutal examination of virtually every aspect of every taxpayer’s life by the all-seeing, all-powerful Internal Revenue Service. Each taxpayer, furthermore, is obliged by law to keep accurate records of his income and deductions, and then, painstakingly and truthfully, to fill out and submit the very forms that will tend to incriminate him into tax liability. An excise tax, say on whiskey or on movie admissions, will intrude directly on no one’s life and income, but only into the sales of the movie theater or liquor store. I venture to judge that, in evaluating the “superiority” or “inferiority” of different modes of taxation, even the most determined imbiber or moviegoer would cheerfully pay far higher prices for whiskey or movies than neoclassical economists contemplate, in order to avoid the long arm of the IRS.2

The Forms of Consumption Tax

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