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4. Binary Intervention: Taxation > 3. The Incidence and Effects of... > A. The General Sales Tax and the Laws...

B. Partial Excise Taxes: Other Production Taxes

The partial excise tax is a sales tax levied on some, rather than all, commodities. The chief distinction between this and the general sales tax is that the latter does not, in itself, distort productive allocations on the market, since a tax is levied proportionately on the sale of all final products. A partial excise, on the other hand, penalizes certain lines of production. The general sales tax, of course, distorts market allocations insofar as government expenditures from the proceeds differ in structure from private demands in the absence of the tax. The excise tax has this effect, too, and, in addition, penalizes the particular industry taxed. The tax cannot be shifted forward, but tends to be shifted backward to the factors working in the industry. Now, however, the tax exerts pressure on nonspecific factors and entrepreneurs to leave the taxed industry and enter other, non-taxed industries. During the transition period, the tax may well be added to cost. As the price, however, cannot be directly increased, the marginal firms in this industry will be driven out of business and will seek better opportunities elsewhere. The exodus of nonspecific factors, and perhaps firms, from the taxed industry reduces the stock of the good that will be produced. This reduction in stock, or supply, will raise the market price of the good, given the consumers’ demand schedule. Thus, there is a sort of “indirect shifting” in the sense that the price of the good to consumers will ultimately increase. However, as we have stated, it is not appropriate to call this “shifting,” a term better reserved for an effortless, direct passing on of a tax in the price.

Everyone in the market suffers as a result of an excise tax. Nonspecific factors must shift to fields of lower income; since the discounted marginal value product is lower there, specific factors are hit particularly hard, and consumers suffer as the allocations of factors and the price structure are distorted in comparison with what would have satisfied their desires. The supply of factors in the taxed industries becomes excessively low, and the selling price in these industries too high; while the supply of factors in other industries becomes excessively large, and their product prices too low.

In addition to those specific effects, the excise tax also has the same general effect as all other taxes, viz., that the pattern of market demands is distorted from private to government or government-subsidized wants by the amount of the tax intake.

Far too much has been written on the elasticity of demand in relation to the effect of taxation. We know that the demand schedule for one firm is always elastic above the free-market price. And the cost of production is not something fixed, but is in itself determined by the selling price. Most important, since the demand curve for a good is always falling, any decrease in the stock will raise the market price, and any increase in the stock will lower the price, regardless of the elasticity of demand for the product. Elasticity of demand is a topic that warrants only a relatively minor role in economic theory.16

In sum, an excise tax (a) injures consumers in the same way that all taxes do, by shifting resources and demands from private consumers to the State; and (b) injures consumers and producers in its own particular way by distorting market allocations, prices, and factor revenues; but (c) cannot be considered a tax on consumption in the sense that the tax is shifted to consumers. The excise tax is also a tax on incomes, except that in this case the effect is not general because the impact falls most heavily on the factors specific to the taxed industry.

Any partial tax on production will have effects similar to an excise tax. A license tax imposed on an industry, for example, granting a monopolistic privilege to firms with a large amount of capital, will restrict the supply of the product and raise the price. Factors and pricing will be misallocated as in an excise tax. In contrast to the latter, however, the indirect grant of monopolistic privilege will benefit the specific, quasi-monopolized factors that are able to remain in the industry.

  • 16. Perhaps the reason for the undeserved popularity of the elasticity concept is that economists need to employ it in their vain search for quantitative laws and measurements in economics.