Chapter 4—Binary Intervention: Taxation (continued)
B. Costs of Collection, Convenience, and Certainty
Even the simplest maxims must not be taken for granted. Two centuries ago, Adam Smith laid down four canons of justice in taxation that economists have parroted ever since. One of them deals with the distribution of the burden of taxation, and this will be treated in detail below. Perhaps the most “obvious” was Smith’s injunction that costs of collection be kept to a “minimum” and that taxes be levied with this principle in mind.
An obvious and harmless maxim? Certainly not; this “canon of justice” is not obvious at all. For the bureaucrat employed in tax collection will tend to favor a tax with high administrative costs, thereby necessitating more extensive bureaucratic employment. Why should we call the bureaucrat obviously wrong? The answer is that he is not, and that to call him “wrong” it is necessary to engage in an ethical analysis that no economist has bothered to undertake.
A further point: if the tax is unjust on other grounds, it may be more just to have high administrative costs, for then there will be less chance that the tax will be fully collected. If it is easy to collect the tax, then the tax may do more damage to the economic system and cause more distortion of the market economy.
The same point might be made about another of Smith’s canons: that a tax should be levied so that payment is convenient. Here again, this maxim seems obvious, and there is certainly much truth in it. But someone may urge that a tax should be made inconvenient to induce people to rebel and force a lowering of the level of taxation. Indeed, this used to be one of the prime arguments of “conservatives” for an income tax as opposed to an indirect tax. The validity of this argument is beside the point; the point is that it is not self-evidently wrong, and therefore this canon is no more simple and obvious than the others.
Smith’s final canon of just taxation is that the tax be certain and not arbitrary, so that the taxpayer knows what he will pay. Here again, further analysis demonstrates that this is by no means obvious. Some may argue that uncertainty benefits the taxpayer, for it makes the requirement more flexible and permits bribery of the tax collector. This benefits the taxpayer to the extent that the price of the bribe is less than the tax that he would otherwise have to pay. Furthermore, there is no way of establishing long-range certainty, for the tax rates may be changed by the government at any time. In the long run, certainty of taxation is an impossible goal.
A similar argument may be levelled against the view that taxes “should” be difficult to evade. If a tax is onerous and unjust, evasion might be highly beneficial to the economy, and moral to boot.
Thus, none of these supposedly self-evident canons of taxation is a canon at all. From some ethical points of view they are correct, from others they are incorrect. Economics cannot decide between them.
Up to this point, we have been discussing taxation as it is levied on any given individual or firm. Now we must turn to another aspect: the distribution of the burden of taxes among the people in the economy. Most of the search for “justice” in taxation has involved the problem of the “just distribution” of this burden.
Various proposed canons of justice will be discussed in this section, followed by analysis of the economic effects of tax distribution.
(1) Uniformity of Treatment
a. Equality Before the Law: Tax Exemption
Uniformity of treatment has been upheld as an ideal by almost all writers. This ideal is supposed to be implicit in the concept of “equality before the law,” which is best expressed in the phrase, “Like to be treated alike.” To most economists this ideal has seemed self-evident, and the only problems considered have been the practical ones of defining exactly when one person is “like” someone else (problems that, we shall see below, are insuperable).
All these economists adopt the goal of uniformity regardless of what principle of “likeness” they may hold. Thus, the man who believes that everyone should be taxed in accordance with his “ability to pay” also believes that everyone with the same ability should be taxed equally; he who believes that each should be taxed proportionately to his income also holds that everyone with the same income should pay the same tax; etc. In this way, the ideal of uniformity pervades the literature on taxation.
Yet this canon is by no means obvious, for it seems clear that the justice of equality of treatment depends first of all on the justice of the treatment itself. Suppose, for example, that Jones, with his retinue, proposes to enslave a group of people. Are we to maintain that “justice” requires that each be enslaved equally? And suppose that someone has the good fortune to escape. Are we to condemn him for evading the equality of justice meted out to his fellows? It is obvious that equality of treatment is no canon of justice whatever. If a measure is unjust, then it is just that it have as little general effect as possible. Equality of unjust treatment can never be upheld as an ideal of justice. Therefore, he who maintains that a tax be imposed equally on all must first establish the justice of the tax itself.
Many writers denounce tax exemptions and levy their fire at the tax-exempt, particularly those instrumental in obtaining the exemptions for themselves. These writers include those advocates of the free market who treat a tax exemption as a special privilege and attack it as equivalent to a subsidy and therefore inconsistent with the free market. Yet an exemption from taxation or any other burden is not equivalent to a subsidy. There is a key difference. In the latter case a man is receiving a special grant of privilege wrested from his fellowmen; in the former he is escaping a burden imposed on other men. Whereas the one is done at the expense of his fellowmen, the other is not. For in the former case, the grantee is participating in the acquisition of loot; in the latter, he escapes payment of tribute to the looters. To blame him for escaping is equivalent to blaming the slave for fleeing his master. It is clear that if a certain burden is unjust, blame should be levied, not on the man who escapes the burden, but on the man or men who impose it in the first place. If a tax is in fact unjust, and some are exempt from it, the hue and cry should not be to extend the tax to everyone, but on the contrary to extend the exemption to everyone. The exemption itself cannot be considered unjust unless the tax or other burden is first established as just.
Thus, uniformity of treatment per se cannot be established as a canon of justice. A tax must first be proven just; if it is unjust, then uniformity is simply imposition of general injustice, and exemption is to be welcomed. Since the very fact of taxation is an interference with the free market, it is particularly incongruous and incorrect for advocates of a free market to advocate uniformity of taxation.
One of the major sources of confusion for economists and others who are in favor of the free market is that the free society has often been defined as a condition of “equality before the law,” or as “special privilege for none.” As a result, many have transferred these concepts to an attack on tax exemptions as a “special privilege” and a violation of the principle of “equality before the law.” As for the latter concept, it is, again, hardly a criterion of justice, for this depends on the justice of the law or “treatment” itself. It is this alleged justice, rather than equality, which is the primary feature of the free market. In fact, the free society is far better described by some such phrase as “equality of rights to defend person and property” or “equality of liberty” rather than by the vague, misleading expression “equality before the law.”
In the literature on taxation there is much angry discussion about “loopholes,” the inference being that any income or area exempt from taxation must be brought quickly under its sway. Any failure to “plug loopholes” is treated as immoral. But, as Mises incisively asked:
What is a loophole? If the law does not punish a definite action or does not tax a definite thing, this is not a loophole. It is simply the law. . . . The income tax exemptions in our income tax are not loopholes. . . . Thanks to these loopholes this country is still a free country.
Aside from these considerations, the ideal of uniformity is impossible to achieve. Let us confine our further discussion of uniformity to income taxation, for two reasons: (1) because the vast bulk of our taxation is income taxation; and (2) because, as we have seen, most other taxes boil down to income taxes anyway. A tax on consumption ends largely as a tax on income at a lower rate.
There are two basic reasons why uniformity of income taxation is an impossible goal. The first stems from the very nature of the State. We have seen, when discussing Calhoun’s analysis, that the State must separate society into two classes, or castes: the taxpaying caste and the tax-consuming caste. The tax consumers consist of the full-time bureaucracy and politicians in power, as well as the groups which receive net subsidies, i.e., which receive more from the government than they pay to the government. These include the receivers of government contracts and of government expenditures on goods and services produced in the private sector. It is not always easy to detect the net subsidized in practice, but this caste can always be conceptually identified.
Thus, when the government levies a tax on private incomes, the money is shifted from private people to the government, and the government’s money, whether expended for government consumption of goods and services, for salaries to bureaucrats, or as subsidies to privileged groups, returns to be spent in the economic system. It is clear that the tax-expenditure level must distort the expenditure pattern of the market and shift productive resources away from the pattern desired by the producers and toward that desired by the privileged. This distortion takes place in proportion to the amount of taxation.
If, for example, the government taxes funds that would have been spent on automobiles and itself spends them on arms, the arms industry and, in the long run, the specific factors in the arms industry become net tax consumers, while a special loss is inflicted on the automobile industry and ultimately on the factors specific to that industry. It is because of these complex relationships that, as we have mentioned, the identification in practice of the net subsidized may be difficult.
One thing we know without difficulty, however. Bureaucrats are net tax consumers. As we pointed out above, bureaucrats cannot pay taxes. Hence, it is inherently impossible for bureaucrats to pay income taxes uniformly with everyone else. And therefore the ideal of uniform income taxation for all is an impossible goal. We repeat that the bureaucrat who receives $8,000 a year income and then hands $1,500 back to the government is engaging in a mere bookkeeping transaction of no economic importance (aside from the waste of paper and records involved). For he does not and cannot pay taxes; he simply receives $6,500 a year from the tax fund.
If it is impossible to tax income uniformly because of the nature of the tax process itself, the attempt to do so also confronts another insuperable difficulty, that of trying to arrive at a cogent definition of “income.” Should taxable income include the imputed money value of services received in kind, such as farm produce grown on one’s own farm? What about imputed rent from living in one’s own house? Or the imputed services of a housewife? Regardless of which course is taken in any of these cases, a good argument can be made that the incomes included as taxable are not the correct ones. And if it is decided to impute the value of goods received in kind, the estimates must always be arbitrary, since the actual sales for money were not made.
A similar difficulty is raised by the question whether incomes should be averaged over several years. Businesses that suffer losses and reap profits are penalized as against those with steady incomes—unless, of course, the government subsidizes part of the loss. This may be corrected by permitting averaging of income over several years, but here again the problem is insoluble because there are only arbitrary ways of deciding the period of time to allow for averaging. If the income tax rate is “progressive,” i.e., if the rate increases as earnings increase, then failure to permit averaging penalizes the man with an erratic income. But again, to permit averaging will destroy the ideal of uniform current tax rates; furthermore, varying the period of averaging will vary the results.
We have seen that, in order to tax income only, it is necessary to correct for changes in the purchasing power of money when taxing capital gains. But once again, any index or factor of correction is purely arbitrary, and uniformity cannot be achieved because of the impossibility of securing general agreement on a definition of income.
For all these reasons, the goal of uniformity of taxation is an impossible one. It is not simply difficult to achieve in practice; it is conceptually impossible and self-contradictory. Surely any ethical goal that is conceptually impossible of achievement is an absurd goal, and therefore any movements in the direction of the goal are absurd as well. It is therefore legitimate, and even necessary, to engage in a logical (i.e., praxeological) critique of ethical goals and systems when they are relevant to economics.
Having analyzed the goal of uniformity of treatment, we turn now to the various principles that have been set forth to give content to the idea of uniformity, to answer the question: Uniform in respect to what? Should taxes be uniform as to “ability to pay,” or “sacrifice,” or “benefits received”? In other words, while most writers have rather unthinkingly granted that people in the same income bracket should pay the same tax, what principle should govern the distribution of income taxes between tax brackets? Should the man making $10,000 a year pay as much as, as much proportionately as, more than, more proportionately than, or less than, a man making $5,000 or $1,000 a year? In short, should people pay uniformly in accordance with their “ability to pay,” or sacrifice made, or some other principle?
a. The Ambiguity of the Concept
This principle states that people should pay taxes in accordance with their “ability to pay.” It is generally conceded that the concept of ability to pay is a highly ambiguous one and presents no sure guide for practical application. Most economists have employed the principle to support a program of proportional or progressive income taxation, but this would hardly suffice. It seems clear, for example, that a person’s accumulated wealth affects his ability to pay. A man earning $5,000 during a certain year probably has more ability to pay than a neighbor earning the same amount if he also has $50,000 in the bank while his neighbor has nothing. Yet a tax on accumulated capital would cause general impoverishment. No clear standard can be found to gauge “ability to pay.” Both wealth and income would have to be considered, medical expenses would have to be deducted, etc. But there is no precise criterion to be invoked, and the decision is necessarily arbitrary. Thus, should all or some proportion of medical bills be deducted? What about the expenses of childrearing? Or food, clothing, and shelter as necessary to consumer “maintenance”? Professor Due attempts to find a criterion for ability in “economic well-being,” but it should be clear that this concept, being even more subjective, is still more difficult to define.
Adam Smith himself used the ability concept to support proportional income taxation (taxation at a constant percentage of income), but his argument is rather ambiguous and applies to the “benefit” principle as well as to “ability to pay.” Indeed, it is hard to see in precisely what sense ability to pay rises in proportion to income. Is a man earning $10,000 a year “equally able” to pay $2,000 as a man earning $1,000 to pay $200? Setting aside the basic qualifications of difference in wealth, medical expenses, etc., in what sense can “equal ability” be demonstrated? Attempting to define equal ability in such a way is a meaningless procedure.
McCulloch, in a famous passage, attacked progressiveness and defended proportionality of taxation:
The moment you abandon . . . the cardinal principle of exacting from all individuals the same proportion of their income or their property, you are at sea without rudder or compass, and there is no amount of injustice or folly you may not commit.
Seemingly plausible, this thesis is by no means self-evident. In what way is proportional taxation any less arbitrary than any given pattern of progressive taxation, i.e., where the rate of tax increases with income? There must be some principle that can justify proportionality; if this principle does not exist, then proportionality is no less arbitrary than any other taxing pattern. Various principles have been offered and will be considered below, but the point is that proportionality per se is neither more nor less sound than any other taxation.
One school of thought attempts to find a justification for a progressive tax via an ability-to-pay principle. This is the “faculty” approach of E.R.A. Seligman. This doctrine holds that the more money a person has, the relatively easier it is for him to acquire more. His power of obtaining money is supposed to increase as he has more: “A rich man may be said to be subject . . . to a law of increasing returns.” Therefore, since his ability increases at a faster rate than his income, a progressive income tax is justified. This theory is simply invalid. Money does not “make money”; if it did, then a few people would by now own all the world’s wealth. To be earned money must continually be justifying itself in current service to consumers. Personal income, interest, profits, and rents are earned only in accordance with their current, not their past, services. The size of accumulated fortune is immaterial, and fortunes can be and are dissipated when their owners fail to reinvest them wisely in the service of consumers.
As Blum and Kalven point out, the Seligman thesis is utter nonsense when applied to personal services such as labor energy. It could only make sense when applied to income from property, i.e., investment in land or capital goods (or slaves, in a slave economy). But the return on capital is always tending toward uniformity, and any departures from uniformity are due to especially wise and farseeing investments (profits) or especially wasteful investments (losses). The Seligman thesis would fallaciously imply that the rates of return increase in proportion to the amount invested.
Another theory holds that ability to pay is proportionate to the “producer’s surplus” of an individual, i.e., his “economic rent,” or the amount of his income above the payment necessary for him to continue production. The consequences of taxation of site rent were noted above. The “necessary payments” to labor are clearly impossible to establish; if someone is asked by the tax authorities what his “minimum” wage is, what will prevent him from saying that any amount below the present wage will cause him to retire or to shift to another job? Who can prove differently? Furthermore, even if it could be determined, this “surplus” is hardly an indicator of ability to pay. A movie star may have practically zero surplus, for some other studio may be willing to bid almost as much as he makes now for his services, while a disabled ditch-digger may have a much greater “surplus” because no one else may be willing to hire him. Generally, in an advanced economy there is little “surplus” of this type, for the competition of the market will push alternative jobs and uses near to the factor’s discounted marginal value product in its present use. Hence, it would be impossible to tax any “surplus” over necessary payment from land or capital since none exists, and practically impossible to tax the “surplus” to labor since the existence of a sizable surplus is rare, impossible to determine, and, in any case, no criterion whatever of ability to pay.
The extremely popular ability-to-pay idea was sanctified by Adam Smith in his most important canon of taxation and has been accepted blindly ever since. While much criticism has been levelled at its inherent vagueness, hardly anyone has criticized the basic principle, despite the fact that no one has really grounded it in sound argument. Smith himself gave no reasoning to support this alleged principle, and few others have done so since. Due, in his text on public finance, simply accepts it because most people believe in it, thereby ignoring the possibility of any logical analysis of ethical principles.
The only substantial attempt to give some rational support to the “ability-to-pay principle” rests on a strained comparison of tax payments to voluntary gifts to charitable organizations. Thus Groves writes: “To hundreds of common enterprises (community chests, Red Cross, etc.) people are expected to contribute according to their means. Governments are one of these common enterprises fostered to serve the citizens as a group. . . .” Seldom have more fallacies been packed into two sentences. In the first place, the government is not a common enterprise akin to the community chest. No one can resign from it. No one, on penalty of imprisonment, can come to the conclusion that this “charitable enterprise” is not doing its job properly and therefore stop his “contribution”; no one can simply lose interest and drop out. If, as will be seen further below, the State cannot be described as a business, engaged in selling services on the market, certainly it is ludicrous to equate it to a charitable organization. Government is the very negation of charity, for charity is uniquely an unbought gift, a freely flowing uncoerced act by the giver. The word “expected” in Groves’ phrase is misleading. No one is forced to give to any charity in which he is not interested or which he believes is not doing its job properly.
The contrast is even clearer in a phrase of Hunter and Allen’s:
Contributions to support the church or the community chest are expected, not on the basis of benefits which individual members receive from the organization, but upon the basis of their ability to contribute.
But this is praxeologically invalid. The reason that anyone contributes voluntarily to a charity is precisely the benefit that he obtains from it. Yet benefit can be considered only in a subjective sense. It can never be measured. The fact of subjective gain, or benefit, from an act is deducible from the fact that it was performed. Each person making an exchange is deduced to have benefited (at least ex ante). Similarly, a person who makes a unilateral gift is deduced to have benefited (ex ante) from making the gift. If he did not benefit, he would not have made the gift. This is another indication that praxeology does not assume the existence of an “economic man,” for the benefit from an action may come either from a good or a service directly received in exchange, or simply from the knowledge that someone else will benefit from a gift. Gifts to charitable institutions, therefore, are made precisely on the basis of benefit to the giver, not on the basis of his “ability to pay.”
Furthermore, if we compare taxation with the market, we find no basis for adopting the “ability-to-pay” principle. On the contrary, the market price (generally considered the just price) is almost always uniform or tending toward uniformity. Market prices tend to obey the rule of one price throughout the entire market. Everyone pays an equal price for a good regardless of how much money he has or his “ability to pay.” Indeed, if the “ability-to-pay” principle pervaded the market, there would be no point in acquiring wealth, for everyone would have to pay more for a product in proportion to the money in his possession. Money incomes would be approximately equalized, and, in fact, there would be no point at all to acquiring money, since the purchasing power of a unit of money would never be definite but would drop, for any man, in proportion to the quantity of money he earns. A person with less money would simply find the purchasing power of a unit of his money rising accordingly. Therefore, unless trickery and black marketeering could evade the regulations, establishing the “ability-to-pay” principle for prices would wreck the market altogether. The wrecking of the market and the monetary economy would plunge society back to primitive living standards and, of course, eliminate a large part of the current world population, which is permitted to earn a subsistence living or higher by virtue of the existence of the modern, developed market.
It should be clear, moreover, that establishing equal incomes and wealth for all (e.g., by taxing all those over a certain standard of income and wealth, and subsidizing all those below that standard) would have the same effect, since there would be no point to anyone’s working for money. Those who enjoy performing labor will do so only “at play,” i.e., without obtaining a monetary return. Enforced equality of income and wealth, therefore, would return the economy to barbarism.
If taxes were to be patterned after market pricing, then, taxes would be levied equally (not proportionately) on everyone. As will be seen below, equal taxation differs in critical respects from market pricing but is a far closer approximation to it than is “ability-to-pay” taxation.
Finally, the “ability-to-pay” principle means precisely that the able are penalized, i.e., those most able in serving the wants of their fellow men. Penalizing ability in production and service diminishes the supply of the service—and in proportion to the extent of that ability. The result will be impoverishment, not only of the able, but of the rest of society, which benefits from their services.
The “ability-to-pay” principle, in short, cannot be simply assumed; if it is employed, it must be justified by logical argument, and this economists have yet to provide. Rather than being an evident rule of justice, the “ability-to-pay” principle resembles more the highwayman’s principle of taking where the taking is good.
Another attempted criterion of just taxation was the subject of a flourishing literature for many decades, although it is now decidedly going out of fashion. The many variants of the “sacrifice” approach are akin to a subjective version of the “ability-to-pay” principle. They all rest on three general premises: (a) that the utility of a unit of money to an individual diminishes as his stock of money increases; (b) that these utilities can be compared interpersonally and thus can be summed up, subtracted, etc.; and (c) that everyone has the same utility-of-money schedule. The first premise is valid (but only in an ordinal sense), but the second and third are nonsensical. The marginal utility of money does diminish, but it is impossible to compare one person’s utilities with another, let alone believe that everyone’s valuations are identical. Utilities are not quantities, but subjective orders of preference. Any principle for distributing the tax burden that rests on such assumptions must therefore be declared fallacious. Happily, this truth is now generally established in the economic literature.
Utility and “sacrifice” theory has generally been used to justify progressive taxation, although sometimes proportional taxation has been upheld on this ground. Briefly, a dollar is alleged to “mean less” or be worth less in utility to a “rich man” than to a “poor man” (“rich” or “poor” in income or wealth?), and therefore payment of a dollar by a rich man imposes less of a subjective sacrifice on him than on a poor man. Hence, the rich man should be taxed at a higher rate. Many “ability-to-pay” theories are really inverted sacrifice theories, since they are couched in the form of ability to make sacrifices.
Since the nub of the sacrifice theory—interpersonal comparisons of utility—is now generally discarded, we shall not spend much time discussing the sacrifice doctrine in detail. However, several aspects of this theory are of interest. The sacrifice theory divides into two main branches: (1) the equal-sacrifice principle and (2) the minimum-sacrifice principle. The former states that every man should sacrifice equally in paying taxes; the latter, that society as a whole should sacrifice the least amount. Both versions abandon completely the idea of government as a supplier of benefits and treat government and taxation as simply a burden, a sacrifice that must be borne in the best way we know how. Here we have a curious principle of justice indeed—based on adjustment to hurt. We are faced again with that pons asinorum that defeats all attempts to establish canons of justice for taxation—the problem of the justice of taxation itself. The proponent of the sacrifice theory, in realistically abandoning unproved assumptions of benefit from taxation, must face and then founder on the question: If taxation is pure hurt, why endure it at all?
The equal-sacrifice theory asks that equal hurt be imposed on all. As a criterion of justice, this is as untenable as asking for equal slavery. One interesting aspect of the equal-sacrifice theory, however, is that it does not necessarily imply progressive income taxation! For although it implies that the rich man should be taxed more than the poor man, it does not necessarily say that the former should be taxed more than proportionately. In fact, it does not even establish that all be taxed proportionately! In short, the equal-sacrifice principle may demand that a man earning $10,000 be taxed more than a man earning $1,000, but not necessarily that he be taxed a greater percentage or even proportionately. Depending on the shapes of the various “utility curves,” the equal-sacrifice principle may well call for regressive taxation under which a wealthier man would pay more in amount but less proportionately (e.g., the man earning $10,000 would pay $500, and the man earning $1,000 would pay $200). The more rapidly the utility of money declines, the more probably will the equal-sacrifice curve yield progressivity. A slowly declining utility-of-money schedule would call for regressive taxation. Argument about how rapidly various utility-of-money schedules decline is hopeless because, as we have seen, the entire theory is untenable. But the point is that even on its own grounds, the equal-sacrifice theory can justify neither progressive nor proportionate taxation.
The minimum-sacrifice theory has often been confused with the equal-sacrifice theory. Both rest on the same set of false assumptions, but the minimum-sacrifice theory counsels very drastic progressive taxation. Suppose, for example, that there are two men in a community, Jones making $50,000, and Smith making $30,000. The principle of minimum social sacrifice, resting on the three assumptions described above, declares: $1.00 taken from Jones imposes less of a sacrifice than $1.00 taken from Smith; hence, if the government needs $1.00, it takes it from Jones. But suppose the government needs $2.00; the second dollar will impose less of a sacrifice on Jones than the first dollar taken from Smith, for Jones still has more money left than Smith and therefore sacrifices less. This continues as long as Jones has more money remaining than Smith. Should the government need $20,000 in taxes, the minimum-sacrifice principle counsels taking the entire $20,000 from Jones and zero from Smith. In other words, it advocates taking all of the highest incomes in turn until governmental needs are fulfilled.
The minimum-sacrifice principle depends heavily, as does the equal-sacrifice theory, on the untenable view that everyone’s utility-of-money schedule is roughly identical. Both rest also on a further fallacy, which now must be refuted: that “sacrifice” is simply the obverse of the utility of money. For the subjective sacrifice in taxation may not be merely the opportunity cost forgone of the money paid; it may also be increased by moral outrage at the tax procedure. Thus, Jones may become so morally outraged at the above proceedings that his marginal subjective sacrifice quickly becomes very great, much “greater” than Smith’s if we grant for a moment that the two can be compared. Once we see that subjective sacrifice is not necessarily tied to the utility of money, we may extend the principle further. Consider, for example, a philosophical anarchist who opposes all taxation fervently. Suppose that his subjective sacrifice in the payment of any tax is so great as to be almost infinite. In that case, the minimum-sacrifice principle would have to exempt the anarchist from taxation, while the equal-sacrifice principle could tax him only an infinitesimal amount. Practically, then, the sacrifice principle would have to exempt the anarchist from taxation. Furthermore, how can the government determine the subjective sacrifice of the individual? By asking him? In that case, how many people would refrain from proclaiming the enormity of their sacrifice and thus escape payment completely?
Similarly, if two individuals subjectively enjoyed their identical money incomes differently, the minimum-sacrifice principle would require that the happier man be taxed less because he makes a greater sacrifice in enjoyment from an equal tax. Who will suggest heavier taxation on the unhappy or the ascetic? And who would then refrain from loudly proclaiming the enormous enjoyment he derives from his income?
It is curious that the minimum-sacrifice principle counsels the obverse of the ability-to-pay theory, which, particularly in its “state of well-being” variant, advocates a special tax on happiness and a lower tax on unhappiness. If the latter principle prevailed, people would rush to proclaim their unhappiness and deep-seated asceticism.
It is clear that the proponents of the ability-to-pay and sacrifice theories have completely failed to establish them as criteria of just taxation. These theories also commit a further grave error. For the sacrifice theory explicitly, and the ability-to-pay theory implicitly, set up presumed criteria for action in terms of sacrifice and burden. The State is assumed to be a burden on society, and the question becomes one of justly distributing this burden. But man is constantly striving to sacrifice as little as he can for the benefits he receives from his actions. Yet here is a theory that talks only in terms of sacrifice and burden, and calls for a certain distribution without demonstrating to the taxpayers that they are benefiting more than they are giving up. Since the theorists do not so demonstrate, they can make their appeal only in terms of sacrifice—a procedure that is praxeologically invalid. Since men always try to find net benefits in a course of action, it follows that a discussion in terms of sacrifice or burden cannot establish a rational criterion for human action. To be praxeologically valid, a criterion must demonstrate net benefit. It is true, of course, that the proponents of the sacrifice theory are far more realistic than the proponents of the benefit theory (which we shall discuss below), in considering the State a net burden on society rather than a net benefit; but this hardly demonstrates the justice of the sacrifice principle of taxation. Quite the contrary.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), pp. 777–79. See also Hunter and Allen, Principles of Public Finance, pp. 137–40.
This discussion applies to Professor Hayek’s adoption of the “rule of law” as the basic political criterion. F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
Mises, in Aaron Director, ed., Defense, Controls and Inflation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 115–16.
To say that an ethical goal is conceptually impossible is completely different from saying that its achievement is “unrealistic” because few people uphold it. The latter is by no means an argument against an ethical principle.
Conceptual impossibility means that the goal could not be achieved even if everyone aimed at it. On the problem of “realism” in ethical goals, see the brilliant article by Clarence E. Philbrook, “‘Realism’ in Policy Espousal,” American Economic Review, December, 1953, pp. 846–59.
See Walter J. Blum and Harry Kalven, Jr., The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 64–68.
Due, Government Finance, pp. 121ff.
The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion of their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation, is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute to their respective interests in the estate. (Wealth of Nations, p. 777)
J.R. McCulloch, A Treatise on the Principle and Practical Influence of Taxation and the Funding System (London, 1845), p. 142.
E.R.A. Seligman, Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice (2nd ed.; (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1908), pp. 291–92.
For an excellent critique of the Seligman theory, see Blum and Kalven, Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, pp. 64–66.
See ibid., pp. 67–68.
Due, Government Finance, p. 122.
Groves, Financing Government, p. 36.
Hunter and Allen, Principles of Public Finance, pp. 190–91.
See Chodorov, Out of Step, p. 237. See also Chodorov, From Solomon’s Yoke to the Income Tax (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1947), p. 11.
The acceptance of this critique dates from Robbins’ writings of the mid-1930’s. See Lionel Robbins, “Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility,” Economic Journal, December, 1938, pp. 635–41; and Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (2nd ed.; London: Macmillan & Co., 1935), pp. 138–41. Robbins was, at that time, a decidedly “Misesian” economist.
For a critique of sacrifice theory, see Blum and Kalven, Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, pp. 39–63.
For an attempt to establish proportional taxation on the basis of equal sacrifice, see Bradford B. Smith, Liberty and Taxes (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, n.d.), pp. 10–12.
Pushed to its logical conclusion in which the State is urged to establish “maximum social satisfaction”—the obverse of minimum social sacrifice—the principle counsels absolute compulsory egalitarianism, with everyone above a certain standard taxed in order to subsidize everyone else to come up to that standard. The consequence, as we have seen, would be a return to the conditions of barbarism.
The ability-to-pay principle is unclear on this point. Some proponents base their argument implicitly on sacrifice; others, on the necessity for payment for “untraceable” benefits.