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Part Six: The Hampered Market Economy > Chapter XXVIII. Interference by Taxation

3. Fiscal and Nonfiscal Objectives of Taxation

The fiscal and nonfiscal objectives of taxation do not agree with one another.

Consider, for instance, excise duties on liquor. If one considers them as a source of government revenue, the more they yield the better they appear. Of course, as the duty must enhance the price of the beverage, it restricts sales and consumption. It is necessary to find out by testing under what rate of duty the yield becomes highest. But if one looks at liquor taxes as a means of reducing the consumption of liquor as much as possible, the rate is better the higher it is. Pushed beyond a certain limit, the tax makes consumption drop considerably, and also the revenue concomitantly. If the tax fully attains its nonfiscal objective of weaning people entirely from drinking alcoholic beverages, the revenue is zero. It no longer serves any fiscal purpose: its effects are merely prohibitive. The same is valid not only with regard to all kinds of indirect taxation but no less for direct taxation. Discriminating taxes levied upon corporations and big business would, if raised above a certain limit, result in the total disappearance of corporations and big business. Capital levies, inheritance and estate taxes, and income taxes are similarly self-defeating if carried to extremes.

There is no solution for the irreconcilable conflict between the fiscal and the nonfiscal ends of taxation. The power to tax involves, as Chief Justice Marshall pertinently observed, the power to destroy. This power can be used for the destruction of the market economy, and it is the firm resolution of many governments and parties to use it for this purpose. With the substitution of socialism for capitalism, the dualism of the coexistence of two distinct spheres of action disappears. The government swallows the whole orbit of the individual's autonomous actions and becomes totalitarian. It no longer depends for its financial support on the means exacted from the citizens. There is no longer any such thing as a separation of public funds and private funds.

Taxation is a matter of the market economy. It is one of the characteristic features of the market economy that the government does not interfere with the market phenomena and that its technical apparatus is so small that its maintenance absorbs only a modest fraction of the total sum of the individual citizens' incomes. Then taxes are an appropriate vehicle for providing the funds needed by the government. They are appropriate because they are low and do not perceptibly disarrange production and consumption. If taxes grow beyond a [p. 741] moderate limit, they cease to be taxes and turn into devices for the destruction of the market economy.

This metamorphosis of taxes into weapons of destruction is the mark of present-day public finance. We do not deal with the quite arbitrary value judgments concerning the problems of whether heavy taxation is a curse of a benefit and whether the expenditures financed by the tax yield are or are not wise and beneficial.2 What matters is that the heavier taxation becomes, the less compatible it is with the preservation of the market economy. There is no need to raise the question of whether or not it is true that "no country was ever yet ruined by large expenditures of money by the public and for the public."3 It cannot be denied that the market economy can be ruined by large public expenditures and that it is the intention of many people to ruin it in this way.

Businessmen complain about the oppressiveness of heavy taxes. Statesmen are alarmed about the danger of "eating the seedcorn." Yet, the true crux of the taxation issue is to be seen in the paradox that the more taxes increase, the more they undermine the market economy and concomitantly the system of taxation itself. Thus the fact becomes manifest that ultimately the preservation of private property and confiscatory measures are incompatible. Every specific tax, as well as a nation's whole tax system, becomes self-defeating above a certain height of the rates.

  • 2. This is the customary method of dealing with problems of public finance. Cf., e.g., Ely Adams, Lorenz, and Young, Outlines of Economics (3d ed. New York, 1920), p. 702.
  • 3. Ibid.