Power & Market

Taxes: The Barbarous Relic of the 21st Century

Ah, spring. That magical time of year when every productive American’s fancy turns to thoughts of how to legally reduce their income tax obligations.

This year, filing an extension and waiting to pay as long as possible has been the ideal tax strategy, thanks in part to the official inflation rate that just hit 8.9%.1

But while trading tax tips is useful (at least in March and into early April), the real key observation \is that taxes have become the true “barbarous relic” of our time.

That’s right, taxes, particularly income taxes, are simply not needed anymore!

That’s just in time too, given the rising complexity of the tax code. Systems that get as complex as the tax code tend to end up collapsing. Barbarous relic, indeed!

That term first originated by economist John Maynard Keynes, in reference to the use of gold as money. 98 years ago, he stated, “In truth, gold is already a barbarous relic.”

Keynes, as usual, was wrong.2

That’s because the decision to use gold as money was determined by many objective measures through centuries of use. Gold has durability, divisibility, and portability, among other qualities.

And it was only found in small proportions globally, at least in terms of what’s been easy and inexpensive to mine given the technology of the time.

As Ludwig von Mises details in Human Action:

“Men have chosen the precious metals gold and silver for the money service on account of their mineralogical, physical, and chemical features. The use of money in a market economy is a praxeologically necessary fact. That gold — and not something else — is used as money is merely a historical fact and as such cannot be conceived by catallactics.”3

In short, people chose gold.

Governments didn’t. But they did create a monopoly on determining weights and measures, the creation of coinage, and through centuries of beguilement, managed to weaken the global gold standard until a fully-fiat regime was born with the US closed the “gold window” in 1971.

But having replaced gold with a fiat currency, governments also found that they can “progress” in other areas as well.

Unfortunately, taxation is one such area.

Individual human beings have entered into governments for a number of purposes, notably collective self-defense and for the ability to redress differences through agreed-upon arbiters.

The use of taxation has historically been to support and pay for government services. However, government has, unlike the gold standard, often had far more flexibility in how taxes are raised.

In the United States, tax revenue was often generated through tariffs. Only during the “emergency” of the Civil War was the first attempt made to tax the income of American citizens. And taxation was limited because the amount of money in the system was limited by the amount of gold in circulation.

While initially struck down as unconstitutional, those who supported the early income tax did something that would be unthinkable today: They changed the Constitution.

This provision came at the end of the gold standard era, and conveniently, at the same time of the third central bank in US history, the Federal Reserve. One can’t help but wonder if the two events are intertwined.

The end of the gold standard led to a substantial rise in incomes, at least measured in fiat, non-gold-backed dollars. As income rose, more and more found themselves trapped into having to pay an income tax, as well as the less-discussed payroll tax.

Thus, what was initially proposed as an income tax on only the wealthiest Americans became an annual financial exam that nearly all have to complete today – even if it’s only to get a refund for overpayment.

Given the proliferation of taxes, it’s clear that the abandonment of the gold standard account the world has contributed to making taxation a barbarous relic today. As the monetary unit is further debased, “cost of living” rises in wages lead to higher tax burdens, which don’t change as often in nominal terms.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Governments can now simply create as much of their preferred monetary unit as needed.

That’s because the monetary alternative to the gold standard, a fiat system, is known for its elasticity. Or, in other terms, the ability by governments to print as much of the monetary unit with only political restrictions (if any) to consider.

Or, in meme speak, “money printer go brrr.”

The Covid 19 pandemic was a golden age for printing money hand over fist. In the US alone, 80% of all dollars in existence were created, going from $4 trillion in January 2020 to over $20 trillion in late 2021.4

But if the government can print money to hand out in “stimulus payments,” or in forgivable loan programs to businesses, the real question is, why make anyone pay taxes at all?

Why even worry about issuing more government debt, if the money can simply be printed instead? Why should the government issue a bond that it has to repay, when it can simply print cash?

All told, it’s clear that taxes are a barbarous relic in our modern age, especially given the money printing of the past two years and its inflationary effects.

Even holding off on collecting taxes for a few years wouldn’t permanently make anyone whole for the destroyed purchasing power of their currency through inflation, but it would go a long way.

But, there’s still more reasons why taxes are truly barbarous. That’s because there’s more than just a monetary cost to paying taxes.

The IRS estimates that it takes around 15 hours5  to prepare their return. Again, taxpayers receive no compensation for their time, so that’s lost economic value creation by millions of man hours per year.

The tax code is complicated. How complicated? People can’t even agree on how long the tax code is.

One estimate is as little as 2,600 pages. Or as high as 75,000 pages.6  That’s a sizeable discrepancy. It’s also going to add a lot to your tax prep time to read and understand it all first.

And even with a written code, many provisions are open to interpretation. Asking 100 different IRS agents to review your tax returns will likely come up with at least 100 different solutions.

Simply put, the US income tax is a series of rules, exceptions to rules, and an overall structure that creates one of the most complex systems in human history.

However, for all the complexity of the tax code, studies have shown that the US has been pretty consistent about collecting 15-20% of GDP through taxes since the end of World War II.7

In other words, it doesn’t matter what the top rate is. It doesn’t matter what exceptions or carve-outs are made. Those who have proposed a “flat tax” that strips out the complexity of the tax code are on to something, and can point to the relative consistency of how much is collected.

But, again, the world has changed. Perhaps tax policy should too. If the government has been pretty good about collecting 15-20% of GDP every year via taxes, they could just scrap taxes and print the money instead.

The best benefit of this policy is that it would greatly slow down the money creation of the past two years!

To some extent, the notion of taxes being outdated is hardly new. Nor unique to the Austrian school.

According to the “modern monetary theory” or MMT, we now live in a more enlightened world. It’s one where monetary policy has become a magical wand capable of addressing things as previously un-economic as systemic racism8  and climate change.9

Given that we now live in a world where all problems can be solved by simply printing money, why not print what’s needed and save taxpayers 15 hours of prep time per year?

More importantly, by printing the money needed for taxes, former taxpayers would suddenly have more money on hand.

That would certainly come in hand to offset the inflation of pure money printing, but every new economic omelet has to break a few eggs.

But MMT is so far into printing money to solve problems that it, sadly, makes paying taxes look responsible.

There’s only so much in taxes that people will want to pay before a taxpayer revolt. It’s hardly a gold standard, which offers limited increases based on mining, but it’s at least a limit.

However, by the time inflation shifted to hyperinflation, MMT would implode too late to stave off a general collapse. Or it would simply encourage its proponents to simply try on a bigger scale next time.10

So with this tax season now behind us (unless you filed an extension) … it’s time to think about how to best scrap the outdated, barbaric system we’re in.

Beyond the complexity, limited effectiveness, and frustrations of the current tax regime, it still doesn’t meet the needs of today’s “do everything” state.

Alternatively, the economy should fare better by rapidly scaling back the amount of taxes collected, while also decreasing the size and scope of government by an even greater amount.

And, by removing a government-backed central bank diluting the currency either “quickly or less quickly,” we could have a more stable monetary unit and a better and more accurate measure of real economic growth as a result.

But such a discussion will likely leave the one proposing those changes as the one advocating for barbarous relics like gold as a standard of value.11

With the status quo being questioned in so many ways right now, it’s time to consider how to best shift the world towards a more reasonable way of taxing its citizens, combined with a discussion of how much government is really needed in their lives.

In truth, taxation is already a barbarous relic. As is the fiat currency regime that’s allowed it to spiral into a complicated morass sucking time and talent out of the productive, real economy.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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