Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The Value-Added Tax Is Not the Answer
by Murray N. Rothbard
One of the great and striking facts of recent months is the growing resistance to further taxes on the part of the long-suffering American public. Every individual, business, or organization in American society acquires its revenue by the peaceful and voluntary sale of productive goods and services to the consumer, or by voluntary donations from people who wish to further whatever the group or organization is doing. Only government acquires its income by the coercive imposition of taxes. The welcome new element is the growing resistance to further tax exactions by the American people.
In its endless quest for more and better booty, the government has contrived to tax everything it can find, and in countless ways. Its motto can almost be said to be "If it moves, tax it!"
Every income, every activity, every piece of property, every person in the land is subject to a battery of tax extortions, direct and indirect, visible and invisible. There is of course nothing new about this; what is new is that the accelerating drive of the government to tax has begun to run into determined resistance on the part of the American citizenry.
It is no secret that the income tax, the favorite of government for its ability to reach in and openly extract funds from everyone's income, has reached its political limit in this country. The poor and the middle class are now taxed so heavily that the federal government, in particular, dares not try to extort even more ruinous levies.
The outraged taxpayer, after all, can easily become the outraged voter. How outraged the voters can be was brought home to the politicians last November, when locality after locality throughout the country rose in wrath to vote down proposed bond issues, even for the long-sacrosanct purpose of expanding public schools.
Defeat in New York
The most heartening example — and one that can only give us all hope for a free America — was in New York City, where every leading politician of both parties, aided and abetted by a heavily financed and demagogic TV campaign, urged the voters to support a transportation bond issue. Yet the bond issue was overwhelmingly defeated — and this lesson for all of our politicians was a sharp and salutary one.
Finally, the property tax, the mainstay of local government as the income tax is at the federal level, is now generally acknowledged to have a devastating effect on the nation's housing. The property tax discourages improvements and investments in housing, has driven countless Americans out of their homes, and has led to spiraling tax abandonments in, for example, New York City, with a resulting deterioration of blighted slum housing.
Government, in short, has reached its tax limit; the people were finally saying an emphatic "No!" to any further rise in their tax burden. What was ever-encroaching government going to do? The nation's economists, most of whom are ever eager to serve as technicians for the expansion of state power, were at hand with an answer, a new rabbit out of the hat to save the day for Big Government.
They pointed out that the income tax and property tax were too evident, too visible, and that so are the generally hated sales tax and excise taxes on specific commodities. But how about a tax that remains totally hidden, that the consumer or average American cannot identify and pinpoint as the object of his wrath? It was this deliciously hidden quality that brought forth the rapt attention of the Nixon administration, the "Value Added Tax" (VAT).
The great individualist Frank Chodorov, once an editor of Human Events, explained clearly the hankering of government for hidden taxation:
It is not the size of the yield, nor the certainty of collection, which gives indirect taxation [read: VAT] preeminence in the state's scheme of appropriation. Its most commendable quality is that of being surreptitious. It is taking, so to speak, while the victim is not looking.
Those who strain themselves to give taxation a moral character are under obligation to explain the state's preoccupation with hiding taxes in the price of goods. (Frank Chodorov, Out of Step, Devin-Adair, 1962, p. 220)
The VAT is essentially a national sales tax, levied in proportion to the goods and services produced and sold. But its delightful concealment comes from the fact that the VAT is levied at each step of the way in the production process: on farmer, manufacturer, jobber and wholesaler, and only slightly on the retailer.
The difference is that when a consumer pays a 7 percent sales tax on every purchase, his indignation rises and he points the finger of resentment at the politicians in charge of government; but if the 7 percent tax is hidden and paid by every firm rather than just at retail, the inevitably higher prices will be charged, not to the government where it belongs, but to grasping businessmen and avaricious trade unions.
While consumers, businessmen, and unions all blame each other for inflation like Kilkenny cats, Papa government is able to preserve its lofty moral purity, and to join in denouncing all of these groups for "causing inflation."
It is now easy to see the enthusiasm of the federal government and its economic advisers for the new scheme for a VAT. It allows the government to extract many more funds from the public — to bring about higher prices, lower production, and lower incomes — and yet totally escape the blame, which can easily be loaded on business, unions, or the consumer as the particular administration sees fit.
The VAT is, in short, a looming gigantic swindle upon the American public, and it is therefore vitally important that it not pass. For if it does, the encroaching menace of Big Government will get another, and prolonged, lease on life.
One of the selling points for VAT is that it is supposed only to replace the property tax for its prime task of financing local public schools. Any relief of the onerous burden of the property tax sounds good to many Americans.
But anyone familiar with the history of government or taxation should know the trap in this sort of promise. For we should all know by now that taxes never go down. Government, in its insatiable quest for new funds, never relaxes its grip on any source of revenue.
You know and I know that the property tax, even if replaced for school financing, will not really go down; it will simply be shifted to other expensive boondoggles of local government. And we also know full well that the VAT will not long be limited to financing the schools; its vast potential (a 10 percent VAT would bring in about $60 billion in revenue) is just too tempting for the government not to use it to the hilt, and, in the famous words of New Dealer Harry Hopkins, "to tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect."
Let us now delve more deeply into the specific nature of the VAT. A given percentage (the Nixon administration proposal is 3 percent) is levied, not on retail sales, but on the sales of each stage of production, with the business firm deducting from its liability the tax embodied in the purchases that he makes from previous stages. It is thus a sales tax hidden at each stage of production, from the farmer or miner down to the retailer.
A "Regressive" Tax
The most common criticism is that the VAT, like the sales tax, is a "regressive" tax, falling largely on the poor and the middle class, who pay a greater percentage of their income than the rich. This is a proper and important criticism, especially coming at a time when the middle class is already suffering from an excruciating tax burden.
The Nixon administration proposes to alleviate the burden on the poor by rebating the taxes through the income tax. While this may alleviate the tax burden on the poor, the middle class, which pays most of our taxes anyway, will hardly be benefited.
"Furthermore, there is a more sinister element in the rebate plan: for some of the poor will get cash payments from the IRS, thereby bringing in the disastrous principle of the guaranteed annual income (FAP) through the back door."Furthermore, there is a more sinister element in the rebate plan: for some of the poor will get cash payments from the IRS, thereby bringing in the disastrous principle of the guaranteed annual income (FAP) through the back door.
But the VAT is in many ways far worse than a sales tax, apart from its hidden and clandestine nature. In the first place, the VAT advocates claim that since each firm and stage of production will pay in proportion to its "value added" to production, there will be no misallocation effects along the way.
But this ignores the fact that every business firm will be burdened by the cost of innumerable record keeping and collection for the government. The result will be an inexorable push of the business system toward "vertical mergers" and the reduction of competition.
Suppose, for example, that a crude-oil producer adds the value of $1,000, and that an oil refiner adds another $1,000, and suppose for simplicity that the VAT is 10 percent. Theoretically, it should make no difference if the firms are separate or "integrated"; in the former case, each firm would pay $100 to the government; in the latter, the integrated firm would pay $200. But since this comforting theory ignores the substantial costs of record keeping and the collection, in practice if the crude-oil firm and the oil refiner were integrated into one firm, making only one payment, their costs would be lower.
Hence, vertical mergers will be induced by the VAT, after which the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice would begin to clamor that the free market is producing "monopoly" and that the merger must be broken by government fiat.
The costs of record keeping and payment pose another grave problem for the market economy. Obviously, small firms are less able to bear these costs than big ones, and so the VAT will be a powerful burden on small business, and hamper it gravely in the competitive struggle. It is no wonder that some big businesses look with favor on the VAT!
There is another grave problem with VAT, a problem that the Western European countries which have adopted VAT are already struggling with.
In the VAT, every firm sends its invoices to the federal government, and gets credit for the VAT embodied in its invoices for the goods bought from other firms. The result is an irresistible opening for cheating, and in Western Europe there are special firms whose business is to write out fake invoices which can reduce the tax liabilities of their "customer." Those businesses more willing to cheat will then be favored in the competitive struggle of the market.
A further crucial flaw exists in the VAT, a flaw which will bring much grief to our economic system. Most people assume that such a tax will simply be passed on in higher prices to the consumer. But the process is not that simple. While, in the long run, prices to consumers will undoubtedly rise, there will be two other important effects: a large short-run reduction in business profits, and a long-run fall in wage incomes.
The critical blow to profits, while perhaps only "short-run," will take place at a time of business recession, when many firms and industries are suffering from low profits and even from business losses. The low-profit firms and industries will be severely hit by the imposition of VAT, and the result will be to cripple any possible recovery and plunge us deeper into recession. Furthermore, new and creative firms, which usually begin small and with low profits, will be similarly crippled before they have scarcely begun.
The VAT will also have a severe, and so far unacknowledged, effect in aggravating unemployment, which is already at a high recession rate. The grievous impact on unemployment will be twofold. In the first place, any firm that buys, say, machinery, can deduct the embodied VAT from its own tax liability; but if it hires workers, it can make no such deduction. The result will be to spur over-mechanization and the firing of laborers.
Secondly, part of the long-run effect of VAT will be to lower the demand for labor and wage incomes; but since unions and the minimum-wage laws are able to keep wage rates up indefinitely, the impact will be a rise in unemployment. Thus, from two separate and compounding directions, VAT will aggravate an already serious unemployment problem.
Hence, the American public will pay a high price indeed for the clandestine nature of the VAT. We will be mulcted of a large and increasing amount of funds, extracted in a hidden but no less burdensome manner, just at a time when the government seemed to have reached the limit of the tax burden that the people will allow. It will be funds that will aggravate the burdens on the already long-suffering average middle-class American. And to top it off, the VAT will cripple profits; injure competition, small business, and new creative firms; raise prices; and greatly aggravate unemployment. It will pit consumers against business, and intensify conflicts within society.
One of the Parkinson's justly famous "laws" is that, for government, "expenditure rises to meet income." If we allow the government to find and exploit new sources of tax funds, it will simply use those funds to spend more and more, and aggravate the already fearsome burden of Big Government on the American economy and the American citizen.
The only way to reduce Big Government is to cut its tax revenue, and to force it to stay within its more limited means. We must see to it that government has less tax funds to play with, not more. The first step on this road to lesser government and greater freedom is to see the VAT for the swindle that it is, and to send it down to defeat.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School. He was an economist, economic historian, and libertarian political philosopher.