The Ethics of Human Rights (29): Should Taxation Be a Tool For Economic Efficiency or For Social Justice?

Taxation is a recurring theme in political discussions between people of the left and right. People of the left see taxation as a tool for social justice. They tend to prefer rather high taxation rates and a progressive taxation system:

  • High taxation rates bring in revenues that are large enough to enable the government to spend on programs and transfers that are designed to promote social justice: unemployment benefits, poverty reduction policies, education, healthcare etc.
  • Progressive taxation rates are just because they impose relatively (and not just absolutely) higher taxes on people who are more able to pay, and, in addition, reduce income inequality and hence realize another goal of social justice.

People on the right usually favor low tax rates and a non-progressive taxation system (either a proportional system in which everyone pays the same share of their income, or a regressive system in which everyone pays more or less the same amount in taxes). Rather than on social justice, they focus on the economic effects of taxation.

  • They reject high taxation rates because they claim that these high rates discourage people and are a disincentive to hard work, effort and investment. Because high rates limit effort and investment, they also limit productivity, innovation, international competitiveness and job creation.
  • They also reject progressive tax rates because high tax rates for high incomes discourage those people who work relatively hard (they work hard supposedly because they earn a lot) and who are most likely to innovate, to be productive and competitive and to create jobs.
  • However, they don’t necessarily favor regressive taxes because they are equally hostile to high tax rates for low income people, albeit for other reasons. High taxes for low income people discourage them from entering the labor market and hence inflate unemployment. Still, they claim that the worst damage is done by high taxes on the higher incomes, which is the reason they reserve particular scorn for progressive taxation systems. Because high tax rates for the wealthy punish the most productive elements in a society, the whole of society suffers. More productive people will limit their productivity because they don’t want to fall into a higher tax bracket, and the money they pay in taxes can’t be invested in the economy. High tax rates, especially for the rich, have an unacceptable cost in terms of economic efficiency. Keeping taxes low, on the contrary, and allowing wealthy people to use their money in the economy, will ultimately benefit everyone (this is the so-called Trickle-Down theory).

Of course, this distinction between left and right is a caricature. Most people on the left are also concerned about economic efficiency, and most on the right are not insensitive to questions of social justice. The extremes are hardly ever encountered in real life: no one wants to limit taxes to such an extent that economic efficiency is promoted but no money is left for justice, and no one wants to put tax rates at such a high level that there is ultimately no more economy to tax. (The latter concern is expressed in the famous Laffer Curve arguing that beyond a certain level of tax rates government revenues in fact decrease instead of increase. At very high rates there is no longer any incentive for a rational taxpayer to earn any income and hence tax revenues will decline while tax rates increase. However, it isn’t clear what “very” in the previous sentence actually means and where exactly the tipping point is situated).

Personally, I believe that the concerns of both right and left are justified and need to be balanced, and that too much focus on either the element of efficiency or justice is detrimental to the other element. On the one hand, there’s only so much money a government can raise without wrecking the economy, and justice isn’t only about spending money (there can even be perverse effects such as unemployment traps, welfare dependency etc.). On the other hand, there’s only so much an efficient economy can do to realize social justice all by itself and quasi-automatically (remember the invisible hand…). To quote Matthew Yglesias’ sarcastic comment on the skyrocketing incomes of the U.S. top 400 earners in the decades leading up to the 2009 recession:

As is well-known, the Top 400 are considerably more talented than the rest of us. And [the] decline in their tax rates has created exciting new incentives for them to apply their talents. And that, in turn, is why the 2000s were a so much more economically successful decade than the 1990s, not just for the Top 400 but for the rest of us as well. Thanks to their skyrocketing incomes and falling tax rates, we’re currently [during the 2008-2009 recession, FS] all enjoying the fruits of prosperity, rapid growth, and low unemployment. Thanks rich guys! (source)

A similar sentiment is expressed in this clip from the Daily Show (skip to the 4th minute or so).

I believe taxes in the U.S. are relatively low and can be raised without too much harm to economic efficiency. The resulting government revenues could then be spent on improving the social safety net and promoting social justice. It’s difficult to imagine for a European that a country such as the U.S. doesn’t offer health insurance to millions of its citizens. Also, unemployment benefits are quite stingy in the U.S., both in terms of eligibility and duration: only one third of the unemployed qualify for benefits and only for 26 weeks (extendable during recessions if the Republicans don’t object, as they infamously did beginning of 2010).

The system of unemployment benefits could easily be improved without perverse effects or harm to economic efficiency. And there are other areas of possible improvement as well.

However, as a European in Europe, I think there’s a strong argument that the social safety net in Europe (at least in some countries) has harmed European competitiveness, labor market participation and innovation.

Still, is there evidence of this? What do the data say about high tax rates harming economic efficiency, in Europe and in general? Is the conservative case against taxes as strong as it seems? I’m afraid not. There’s some evidence that the effect of reasonably rather than extremely high rates on economic efficiency is minimal at best. Here’s more evidence from Lane Kenworthy about the U.S. and other affluent countries (always keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t imply causation and that the absence of a large negative effect of high taxes doesn’t preclude the possibility that lower taxes would have had a large positive effect). One measure of economic efficiency is economic growth. If we plot economic growth rates for the U.S. against tax rates for the wealthy we see that higher tax rates lead to more growth. But of course there can be catch-up effect: higher rates producing their effects only years later. That’s taken into account in these graphs, which also show that an international comparison doesn’t prove that countries with higher tax rates have lower growth.

If we have a look at the data about the effect of high tax rates on unemployment (another conservative concern), we also see that we shouldn’t panic about taxes.

Now, if there is no good reason not to tax at a moderately high level, based on concerns about economic efficiency, the question remains whether there is a good reason to tax based on social justice reasons. Given the caveat that social justice isn’t all about government spending (I argued <a href="http://here that it is primarily about something else) and that such spending can in some cases have perverse effects (see above), I do believe that some spending is necessary in some cases, and that relatively high tax rates are necessary to produce the revenues required for this spending.

Again following Kenworthy, I believe that relatively high tax rates are acceptable and even necessary to create the revenues required for social justice policies, but that progressive tax rates in themselves don’t do the job of reducing income inequality, contrary to what is often claimed as a justification for progressive rates. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reduce income inequality (it’s quite high in the U.S.) – there are good reasons to try. It just means that progressive taxation in itself won’t do the job. The important thing is to have high tax revenues which can then be spent in transfers and services that reduce income inequality and achieve other goals of social justice. Yet, I still think a progressive system is required, not because of its supposed effects but simply because it is just in itself, compared to proportional or regressive systems. A person with more income can afford to pay, not merely more in an absolute sense but more in the sense of a larger share of his or her income.

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