The United States Constitution provided in Article I, Section 9, that No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken. This not only effectively barred any Federal taxes on personal incomes, which whether assessed equally or not, as based on the percentage taken, could never be proportionate to the population at large. It also barred any direct taxation of the public that would have imposed any different burden on the rich than on the poor. And from 1789 until the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, this remained the fundamental policy of the United States on the subject of taxation of the individual.
To make the point clear: A capitation tax, based upon the census, would be a tax that impacted each person by the same amount. Thus, as a means of raising the vast sums being expended by Government today, it would admittedly not be an adequate source. Moreover, there are people to whom even a required annual payment of $100 would prove a great burden. Nor was such a tax envisioned as being particularly useful in 1790. Indeed, for a long time, various forms of excise tax--imposts specific to goods and services--seemed preferable. The question of using--or avoiding--taxation for purposes ulterior to those of raising revenues, or protecting local industry, was not then very significant in the history of American political debate--although not unknown--until comparatively recently.
With the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, which simply provided that The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration, the natural questions of tax rates, as well as thresholds for susceptibility, became serious ongoing political issues. However, there needs to be a sense of proportion as to the original impact and what has evolved over time, in formulating an analysis, which will resonate both with those whose interest in political issues tends to be more concrete than theoretical, and with those of a more philosophical bent.
The original income tax levy provided a high threshold before there was any exposure. A single taxpayer was only subject to a tax on income over $3,000 per year--an amount that far exceeded the average family income at the time, and the equivalent to a six figure income today--while the first $4,000 was exempt for the married couple. Above that, the rates were graduated, going from 1% on income up to $20,000, rising, by staged 1% increments, to a maximum rate of 7% for income over $500,000 per year. The justification--rationalization--of course, was the asserted need for funding a growing Government.
A number of comments on this are advisable, to fully develop the context from which to explore the more obvious ideological issues. First, the constant iteration of the need for additional funds, voiced at every level of Government, is almost always at least in part a reflection on those espousing that need. It is almost always easier to restrain expenditures than to raise additional taxes to finance them. (We do not for the purposes of this essay intend to get into the question of deficit financing, other than to point out that that is a further unpleasant and sometimes very dangerous alternative to economy in Government, which can adversely impact private interests in many ways.)
Second, while there are slightly different considerations in play in setting a threshold level for tax applicability, than in setting graduated rates, which impose not only a higher tax on the most wealthy but even a much higher rate of taxation, such issues are certainly related. Both represent a considerable deviation, not only from the idea of a capitation, or head tax, but from any notion of a burden proportionate to means or income. Completely exempting the vast majority of the population, meant that the impact was not only primarily, but exclusively, directed against the very affluent. While the sharply graduated rates among those who were subject to the tax meant that a clear signal was being sent: The greater your material success, the more you achieved, the less of your achievement, you would be permitted to enjoy.
There is an obvious argument for thresholds in the applicability of a tax on incomes. Leaving out of the equation those who have no income to tax--those inevitably exempt--there will always remain a substantial number of people whose lives are real struggles to make ends meet. One may rationally agree to cut such persons considerable slack, without going the extra step by graduating the rates among those who are able to pay the tax and still enjoy a decent life. The original 1913 threshold was not, however, reasonable in an age when the low price level enabled a person to live very nicely on less than $1,000 per year; and even without the sharply graduated rates, telegraphed a clear antagonism to those who had achieved the greatest success--a portent of what was to come. Those who saw that signal as a positive, were happy to label the concept "Progressive"--a propagandist's term of art, in that the rates were "progressive" in the sense of a mathematical progression; while, to the general public, the proponents hoped to make them appear to be conducive to human progress.
The era was a period when huge fortunes had been made; when "muckraking" accounts of the evidence of entrepreneurial greed were popular reading. The new tax reflected perhaps more jealousy than real antagonism, at least among the political mainstream. But the idea, to which the original rates gave really only a modest suggestion, that taxes might be used as a way to level Society and redistribute wealth, was one with particular appeal among the burgeoning Socialist movements, which saw in it a major vehicle towards accomplishing their objective. And by the 1920s, a sharply graduated--"Progressive"--income tax was a major item in the platform of the American Communist party. Yet prior to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the mainstream parties still adhered to the basic concept that taxes on incomes were just a necessary evil; admittedly one seemingly more palatable if more onerously imposed on those at the top of the economic ladder.
It is probably not necessary to point out that once a reasonable threshold is determined, the "flat" tax--the tax that takes an equal percentage of each taxpayer's income over that threshold--is actually the fairest, most even-handed. The larger income still bears the larger burden, but a proportionate, not greater, percentage burden. If tax is seen merely as a means for funding Government, there is no reason why one taxpayer should have not only a larger burden, but a larger percentage burden. The "progressive"--that is the graduated feature--so enthusiastically embraced as a virtue by the organized Left--serves only to punish success and redistribute the fruits of individual achievement. Its implications are wholly inconsistent with the workings of a Society premised upon individual responsibility. Here the group--the collective--is intervening to reduce one man's success, relative to others. This is obvious, even if the revenue itself is not directly redistributed to other men. (Of course, other people are going to derive a benefit, however the proceeds are originally directed.)
With the advent of the "New Deal"--the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt on March 4, 1933--a veritable pestilence of Leftwing theorists, propagandists and academics, descended upon Washington. While many of these were agenda driven Socialists of various hues; they were generally described as "Liberal" or "Progressive," and generally credited with a profundity, which none of them ever actually demonstrated. There was little deviation in the approach of such men to economic and social issues from that of a consistent ideology, reflecting commitment to a Socialist/Egalitarian value system. Under their influence, the Federal Government assumed a whole new role: The ultimate support system for the poor and needy. And the concept of "tax and spend" became a recognized approach to American Government.
Under Roosevelt, the pretense of an ideologically neutral tax system was abandoned. By the time Roosevelt died, the maximum marginal rate among higher income taxpayers, had soared to 91%. Although the War had been cited in justification for the generally very high, yet sharply graduated rates, the Left resisted all post war efforts to afford tax relief to the more successful. The theorists and propagandists, who had infested the New Deal at every level, were now dug in, both in Government and Academia, as well as in the popular media; and from these bastions, bitterly assailed all efforts to return to a more capital friendly tax system. The tactics, these employed, have been used ever since to maintain very high rates as part of a socialistic mechanism to redistribute wealth. While over a generation later, Ronald Reagan finally succeeded in bringing the higher marginal rates down to non-confiscatory levels, his Republican successors have shown less resolve in the face of a sloganized opposition, and there has been an upward creep in the top bracket.
The basic technique of the Left has not changed in generations, and is well known to anyone who observes contemporary American politics. Let us offer a simplistic illustration: Assume a hypothetical Tax Bill, with a 10%, across the board, reduction in everyone's tax rates. A tax payer with an effective rate of 40%, would see his taxes reduced to an effective rate of 36%. A taxpayer with an effective rate of l5%, would see his rate reduced to an effective rate of 13.5%. A taxpayer with an effective rate of 10% would be reduced to an effective rate of 9%. (For the purpose of our model, we are assuming no other tinkering with brackets, or with deductions, exemptions, credits, etc., etc., which is of course not realistic in view of the pandering to particular interests and notions of interests, which are an invariable part of the process in any "tax reform." But we would keep the point of this discussion on the specific subject.)
Such an even, across the board reduction, would obviously be fair from the very assumptions of those who put the existing higher rates in place; that is, to those who assume the propriety of the previous differential--the already steeply graduated rates. One would not expect the principal opposition to the new rates to come from the proponents of that steep differential, since the new rates keep the same proportionate differential. Those, whom you would expect to be leading the opposition, would be those who do not believe that "Progressive Taxation," steeply graduated rates, are ever a good or fair thing. Yet that is never how the debate develops or is reported in the popular media. Invariably the politicians on the Left set up a great hue and cry--echoed in their academic "think tanks" and in undergraduate economics classes--in an argument, which may take one of several deliberately misleading forms:
The most obviously demagogic approach is to suggest that the Tax Bill would "give" the man who makes $500,000 per year, a windfall of $20,000; while the man who makes $20,000 would get almost nothing, and the man who makes $30,000, only $300. (The assumptions, for the sake of our point, is that this Tax Bill comes at a time when $500,000 income would correspond to the effective tax rate of 40%, and $30,000 annual income would correspond to the 10% effective rate.) Deliberately ignored, is that no one is even proposing that the Government "give" anything to anyone. The reality is that all of the money, under discussion, was earned by those being taxed. It is only by levying a tax burden on it, that the Government--or the Leftist theorist--has any connection to it, whatsoever.
A slightly less obviously egregious example of the same argument, will point out that the one man is getting a 6.67% increase in his after tax income (from 60 to 64%), while the other man is getting only a 1.11% increase (from 90 to 91%). Of course, again the answer is the simple reality. We are still only talking about a small forbearance in the taking of the individual's own money. And again, the larger percentage increase in the rich man's retention but reflects the extent to which he is already being gauged by the system that is in place--and continues in place. There are other variants of this same deliberately misleading statistical argument, frequently shouted with great indignation. The pity is that they are not answered by those who understand statistics--and recognize demagoguery, when they see it--with an even greater self-righteous enthusiasm.
Another variety of attack on virtually any tax reform, which offers some relief to the wealthy, could give the inexperienced Conservative foe of extreme taxes, more trouble. It comes in the form of a utilitarian argument on the velocity with which money tends to be spent, and the claimed Multiplier resulting from getting more money into the hands of the least affluent members of Society. The idea is that the poorer one is, the more one needs to immediately spend whatever he can get his hands on; that the more rapidly goods are consumed, the faster the money paid for them turns over, the more a consumption driven economy expands. The claim is that by taxing the wealthy, who would otherwise save a substantial part of their income as a store of wealth, at much higher rates; and then, either indirectly by virtue of those rates not applying to the poor, or by direct programs that actually redistribute wealth directly to the latter, it is possible to put money into the hands of those who will trigger the consumption boom desired.
There is so much wrong with this picture--both as to long term economics and as to the moral bases for a political economy (Chapter Nine)--that we may make it the subject for a later essay. It sufficeth for the present, that in as much as it discourages both savings and incentives for investment, it is not a prescription for long term growth, but for inflationary prices and gross imbalances in supply; as did in fact result from its application, in the pre-Reagan era. One recalls the Kipling line, "though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy." Escaping such Keynesian quackery, was one of the principal justifications for the Reagan tax reforms, which drastically slashed the upper marginal tax rates.
Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian free market economist, succinctly explained the issues in the Leftist call for progressive taxation, in his classic work, Human Action (Third Revised Edition, Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1966), in Chapter XXXII, Section 3, pp. 807-808:
Taxes are necessary. But the system of discriminatory taxation universally accepted under the misleading name of progressive taxation of income and inheritance is not a mode of taxation. It is rather a mode of disguised expropriation of the successful capitalists and entrepreneurs. Whatever the governments' satellites may advance in its favor, it is incompatible with the preservation of the market economy. It can at best be considered a means of bringing about socialism....
Economics is not concerned with the spurious metaphysical doctrines advanced in favor of tax progression, but with its repercussions on the operation of the market economy. The interventionist authors and politicians look at the problems involved from the angle of their arbitrary notions of what is "socially desirable." As they see it, "the purpose of taxation is never to raise money," since the government "can raise all the money it needs by printing it." The true purpose of taxation is "to leave less in the hands of the taxpayer." [The quotations attributed to A. B. Lerner, The Economics of Control, Principles of Welfare Economics (New York, 1944), pp. 307-308.]
Economists approach the issue from a different angle. They ask first: what are the effects of confiscatory taxation on capital accumulation? The greater part of that portion of the higher incomes which is taxed away would have been used for the accumulation of additional capital. ... The same is valid, even to a greater extent, for death taxes. They force the heirs to sell a considerable part of the testator's estate. This capital is, of course, not destroyed; it merely changes ownership. But the savings of the purchasers, which are spent for the acquisition of the capital sold by the heirs, would have constituted a net increment in capital available. Thus the accumulation of new capital is slowed down. The realization of technological improvement is impaired; the quota of capital invested per worker employed is reduced; a check is placed upon the rise in the marginal productivity of labor and upon the concomitant rise in real wage rates. It is obvious that the popular belief that this mode of confiscatory taxation harms only the immediate victims, the rich, is false.
The viciously graduated tax rates, which kept marginal rates at over 70% for decades prior to the Reagan tax reform--and kept marginal rates on inheritances at incredibly high marginal rates, rising rapidly to a 55% confiscation from Roosevelt to the beginning of this Century--have spawned an enormous misdirection of personnel from productive enterprise to a consuming preoccupation with avoiding the effects of "Progressive Taxation." While the Accounting profession come instantly to mind, they are by no means the only one whose numbers have been unnaturally multiplied, and whose primary purpose has been so considerably misdirected.
Before any Tax Bill may be adopted, spokesmen for almost every conceivable special or definable interest rush to Washington in pursuit of special "breaks," concessions or what have you; the quest of each, to enable a particular interest group to escape the full or at least some of the effects of the severe rates. On the Congressional side, bloated Congressional staffs work frenetically to appease these interests; and seek "trade offs" with the staffs of other Congressmen, to obtain the most advantageous treatments for those with special relationships with the Legislators who have employed them. All of these diverse players will also interact with a veritable army in the Executive branch, who must deal with the same issues. The final result will be as tortured and complex a piece of legislation, as it is possible for the human mind to even try to comprehend. It is at this point that the Accounting Profession gets the job of assuring its clients' compliance--and where humanly possible avoidance;--analyzing and advising with respect to a myriad of special interest provisions, as well as any and all changes in the overall approach.
Would some of these people be able to find productive--as opposed to merely retentive labor--if we were to return to a simpler, less destructive tax system? Undoubtedly, most would. Our purpose is not to disparage accountants. Accounting may be dull work, it still requires considerable ability; aptitudes which could be otherwise directed. But this enormous diversion of potentially productive individuals to less than productive occupations, is only one of the consequences of having a tax system that sets out to penalize the brightest and most successful.
The contrivances of those very tax accountants, have frequently resulted in huge sums being diverted from optimum investment, as determined by the needs and wants of a free market, into elaborate "tax shelters," hedges, deferments--as well as schemes to simply hide assets and income--which make no other sense, with respect to the sound uses of Capital, but to avoid the impact of the punitive tax rates. Anyone who understands the dynamics of a free market, where the rewards are proportionate to the optimal use of resources, must see what an unfortunate consequence this diversion of resources has been. Whatever growth we have still managed, it is clearly not the potential growth, forgone by indulging Socialist theorists with our Tax Code.
Perhaps the ugliest consequence has come in a loss of perspective, as to fiduciary honor and duty, among those who perceive themselves to be the targets of "Progressive" taxation. As the culture of tax avoidance has grown, so too the idea of milking a position of strength, in order to circumvent the designs of tax theorists, seeking to level income. Thus many, who have been in a position where they could, in effect, pass the tax on to someone else, have done so by inflating their incomes on the rationalization that the actual price for their services was what they were left with after taxes, rather than the true cost to their employer.
Everyone is familiar with the absurd sums being paid professional athletes, today, for playing games that are supposed to be fun. Some of those Official "Time Outs," at televised football games--the ones that seem to have no function save to disrupt the flow of the game, but serve to provide advertising dollars and ultimately help sustain absurd salaries--may, in a sense, be attributed to our Tax Code. But they are only a minor inconvenience. Far more serious, has been the misuse of stock options and special bonuses to produce true after tax windfalls for corporate executives. And there, the nexus with the Tax Code is far clearer.
A corporate executive, at the higher level, is clearly a Fiduciary. He is not only an employee of the Corporation, and by reason thereof, equitably an employee of the shareholders. But he is in a position of special trust, which requires him to always put the Corporate interest ahead of any private interest. This is particularly true, if he also serves on the Board of Directors, whose fiduciary duties have always been understood to be fully equivalent to those of Trustees. When Corporate Executives recommend that the shareholders adopt huge stock option plans and special bonuses, the justification is ordinarily that such are needed to be competitive--to recruit and retain highly qualified people. Because these special awards are payable in Corporate stock, where the benefit to the recipient is in his being taxed at a lower rate than he would be, were he to be awarded an equivalent benefit in cash; they may be made to seem very reasonable to shareholders. (On the other hand, large blocks of shares may be held by Corporations whose executives are engaged in similar bonus schemes; and individual shareholders, who may vote against an option proposal, may be outvoted by institutional holders whose managers may feel a personal interest in making such schemes seem more acceptable.)
It is not just that these tax driven devices result in a gradual transfer of wealth and control from the shareholders, who may include the families of the people who actually had the entrepreneurial skills to found the enterprise. That is a socially undesirable tendency to be sure. Yet that is not quite the most serious consequence of such contrivances.
In management's diverted attention, from serving the Corporation to dealing with their own tax problems, a gradual shift has taken place that was less noted in earlier manifestations. In place of a clear sense of Fiduciary duty--that understanding that they are there to serve others, even at the expense of their own immediate interests--the tax war between Socialist theorists and those who have this ability to use a position to pass the burden on to others, has corrupted the perception of many. And not only have the option and bonus schemes exploded in scope, but a rash of other schemes, intended to pump up the values of those options by misleading the public as to the value of the underlying stock, have lately come into play. The result is the Enrons, Global Crossings, Worldcoms, etc., which have so undermined public confidence in the Corporate world, and destroyed the savings of many shareholders.
It may be argued that one does not need a graduated income tax to bring out dishonest tendencies. But in the case of managerial miscreants, who effectively steal from their employers--the Corporations and their shareholders--there is too much consistency between the moral lapse and one of the underlying rationalizations for "Progressive" taxation--to wit, that the accumulated wealth of other people is not somehow really worthy of respect;--that it is difficult to deny some connection. Here the malefactors are not footpads, rolling a rich play boy who has gotten drunk on the wrong side of the tracks. They are bright and reasonably well educated men of intelligent and respectable social backgrounds--many, themselves, from affluent families. Moreover, the scale of the transgressions bespeaks a moral deterioration down through the ranks of those whose complicity was essential. This is only consistent with a "sea change" in the attitude of Americans towards other people's property.
Of course, there is an aspect of the old "chicken vs. egg" enigma here. Were the Corporate bounders merely corrupted by their experiences in fending off tax collectors within the parameters of the anti-property philosophy reflected in the Tax Code? Or is there, perhaps, a new determination among intelligent Americans, not to be held down by egalitarian theorists, no matter what--in short, an amoral response to an amoral attack? Or had many been corrupted earlier, in their college days, by imbibing some of that mix of disrespect for traditional values with utilitarian rationalizations, which under-pin the Leftist attack on Capitalism, itself, and especially on those with old, often inherited, money--including many shareholders? Most Conservatives who have participated in local politics--particularly over social or educational issues--in communities where a large Corporate presence brings in personnel from outside the community, will recognize the pattern to which we refer. Corporate managers, as a class, are not Conservative!
We realize that Steve Forbes' proposed flat tax--the most popular recent challenge to the graduated income tax--has not been embraced by all Conservative groups, or all others who reject Leftist social and economic concepts. And, while we think it has considerable merit, we have not included the specific proposal within the focus of this Chapter. Yet it is clear that to continue an implicit acceptance of the premises behind the still steeply graduated rates--which have already begun to creep upwards in a slow reversal of the Reagan reform--is in the interests neither of those who seek a morally based social order, nor of those whose major interest is economic progress. And this is equally true with respect to the confiscatory Federal Estate Taxes, which have been in place since the 1930s.
On the moral issue, we would refer to Chapter 9 of this Handbook, with a more immediate additional retort to those who would justify the assessment of confiscatory taxation on the theory that it is harmful to allow great disparities in the accumulated wealth of a people. Since Biblical times, it has behooved the morally responsible to put aside what they could from the productive labor of their own lives. as a legacy for their families and those who will come after them. To attack those who do best at this human providence, is to attack the very moral underpinnings of a Society that intends to continue from generation to generation. To seek to penalize the most productive individuals, by denying them the fruits of their labors--a necessary attribute of which has always included the right to pass those fruits on to their progeny--is to undermine the philosophic foundations of a Society based upon individual responsibility; to destroy the moral compass for all personal endeavor.
On the economic consequences of "Progressive" Taxation, we turn again to Ludwig von Mises, Ibid., page 840: The inequality of incomes and wealth is an inherent feature of the market economy. Its elimination would entirely destroy the market economy. A little further on, in Chapter XXXVI, "The Crisis Of Interventionism," he further discusses the fallacy in the mistaken economic views that are reflected in the concept of "Progressive" Taxation (Ibid., page 855):
The idea underlying all interventionist policies is that the higher income and wealth of the more affluent part of the population is a fund which can be freely used for the improvement of the conditions of the less prosperous. The essence of the interventionist policy is to take from one group to give to another. It is confiscation and distribution. ...In the field of public finance progressive taxation of incomes and estates is the most characteristic manifestation of this doctrine. Tax the rich and spend the revenue for the improvement of the condition of the poor ....
Note that von Mises was writing during the Johnson Administration in 1966: The start of the era of what came to be called "Stagflation." Continuing, page 857:With the present height of income and inheritance tax rates, this reserve fund out of which the interventionists seek to cover all public expenditure is rapidly shrinking. It has practically disappeared altogether in most European countries. In the United States the recent advances in tax rates produced only negligible revenue results beyond what would be produced by a progression which stopped at much lower rates. High surtax rates for the rich are very popular with interventionist dilettantes and demagogues, but they secure only modest additions to the revenue. From day to day it becomes more obvious that large-scale additions to the amount of public expenditure cannot be financed by "soaking the rich," but that the burden must be carried by the masses. The traditional tax policy of the age of interventionism, its glorified devices of progressive taxation and lavish spending have been carried to a point at which their absurdity can no longer be concealed.
By 1980, the impending crisis von Mises described was very much upon us. It was in part by understanding the above assessment, that President Reagan was able to grant the American economy a reprieve, and partially alleviate some of the more confiscatory rates of taxation. But that clear vision, which led to what many Conservatives saw as a successful beginning in a return to reason, is now being lost in an almost Pavlovian response, by politicians in both parties, to a persistent push from the Left, which plays ever on Egalitarian prejudices, instilled via an intellectually corrupt education system. (For examples, see Chapters 7 & 16.) Washington now seems poised to expend whatever may have been added back to what von Mises termed a "reserve fund"--the American stock of private capital--as a result of the Reagan victory, in order to cater to virtually every imaginable special interest. The current debate on tax policy might as well have taken place in 1940. The issues really haven't changed.
As for the Bush tax cuts? They preserved the steep "progessive" graduation. Yet worse, they have been coupled with an immense explosion in spending, which sooner than anyone in Washington will admit, must deplete that "reserve fund," via either new taxes or a collapsing currency or both.
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