Mises Wire

How Taxation Kills Entrepreneurship

A popular fallacy considers entrepreneurial profit a reward for risk-taking. It looks upon the entrepreneur as a gambler who invests in a lottery after having weighed the favorable chances of winning a prize against the unfavorable chances of losing his stake. This opinion manifests itself most clearly in the description of stock-exchange transactions as a sort of gambling. From the point of view of this widespread fable, the evil caused by confiscatory taxation is that it disarranges the ratio between the favorable and the unfavorable chances in the lottery. The prizes are cut down, while the unfavorable hazards remain unchanged. Thus capitalists and entrepreneurs are discouraged from embarking upon risky ventures.

Every word in this reasoning is false. The owner of capital does not choose between more risky, less risky, and safe investments. He is forced, by the very operation of the market economy, to invest his funds in such a way as to supply the most urgent needs of the consumers to the best possible extent. If the methods of taxation resorted to by the government bring about capital consumption or restrict the accumulation of new capital, the capital required for marginal employments is lacking and an expansion of investment which would have been effected in the absence of these taxes is prevented. The wants of the consumers are satisfied to a lesser extent only. But this outcome is not caused by a reluctance of capitalists to take risks; it is caused by a drop in capital supply.

There is no such thing as a safe investment. If capitalists were to behave in the way the risk fable describes and were to strive after what they consider to be the safest investment, their conduct would render this lone of investment unsafe and they would certainly lose their input. For the capitalist there is no means of evading the law of the market that makes it imperative for the investor to comply with the wishes of the consumers and to produce all that can be produced under the given state of capital supply, technological knowledge, and the valuations of the consumers. A capitalist never chooses that investment in which, according to his understanding of the future, the danger of losing his input is smallest. He chooses that investment in which he expects to make the highest possible profit.

Those capitalists who are aware of their own lack of ability to judge correctly for themselves the trend of the market do not invest in equity capital, but lend their funds to the owners of such venture capital. They thus enter into sort of partnership with those on whose better ability to appraise the conditions of the market they rely. It is customary to call venture capital risk capital. However, as has been pointed out, the success or failure of the investment in preferred stock, bonds, debentures, mortgages, and other loans depends ultimately also on the same factors that determine success or failure of the venture capital invested.1  There is no such thing as independence of the vicissitudes of the market.

If taxation were to strengthen the supply of loan capital at the expense of the supply of venture capital, it would make the gross market rate of interest drop and at the same time, by increasing the share of borrowed capital as against the share of equity capital in the capital structure of the firms and corporations, render the investment in loans more uncertain. The process would therefore be self-liquidating.

The fact that a capitalist as a rule does not concentrate his investments, both in common stock and in loans, in one enterprise or one branch of business, but prefers to spread out his funds among various classes of investment, does not suggest that he wants to reduce his “gambling risk.” He wants to improve his chances of earning profits.

Nobody embarks upon any investment if he does not expect to make a good investment. Nobody deliberately chooses a malinvestment. It is only the emergence of conditions not properly anticipated by the investor that turns an investment into a malinvestment.

As has been pointed out, there cannot be such a thing as noninvested capital.2 The capitalist is not free to choose between investment and noninvestment. Neither is he free to deviate in the choice of his investments in capital goods from the lines determined by the most urgent among the still-unsatisfied wants of the consumers. He must try to anticipate these future wants correctly. Taxes may reduce the amount of capital goods available by bringing about consumption of capital. But they do not restrict the employment of all capital goods available.3

With an excessive height of the income and estate tax rates for the very rich, a capitalist may consider it the most advisable thing to keep all his funds in cash or in bank balances not bearing any interest. He consumes part of his capital, pays no income tax and reduces the inheritance tax which his heirs will have to pay. But even if people really behave this way, their conduct does not affect the employment of the capital available. It affects prices. But no capital good remains uninvested on account of it. And the operation of the market pushes investment into those lines in which it is expected to satisfy the most urgent not yet satisfied demand of the buying public.

[This article is excerpted from Human Action]

  • 1Cf. A.B. Lerner, The Economics of Control, Principles of Welfare Economic (New York, 1944), pp. 539–540.
  • 2Cf. above, pp. 521–523.
  • 3In using the term “capital goods available,” due consideration should be given to the problem of convertibility. 
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