Taxes Discourage Production

Essential Works: The Freeman

Economics In One Lesson, Chapter 5

There is a still further factor which makes it improbable that the wealth created by government spending will fully compensate for the wealth destroyed by the taxes imposed to pay for that spending. It is not a simple question, as so often supposed, of taking something out of the nation’s right-hand pocket to put into its left-hand pocket. The government spenders tell us, for example, that if the national income is $200,000,000,000 (they are always generous in fixing this figure) then government taxes of $50,000,000,000 a year would mean that only 25 per cent of the national income was being transferred from private purposes to public purposes. This is to talk as if the country were the same sort of unit of pooled resources as a huge corporation, and as if all that were involved were a mere bookkeeping transaction. The government spenders forget that they are taking the money from A in order to pay it to B. Or rather, they know this very well; but while they dilate upon all the benefits of the process to B, and all the wonderful things he will have which he would not have had if the money had not been transferred to him, they forget the effects of the transaction on A. B is seen; A is forgotten.

In our modern world there is never the same percentage of income tax levied on everybody. The great burden of income taxes is imposed on a minor percentage of the nation’s income; and these income taxes have to be supplemented by taxes of other kinds. These taxes inevitably affect the actions and incentives of those from whom they are taken. When a corporation loses a hundred cents of every dollar it loses, and is permitted to keep only 60 cents of every dollar it gains, and when it cannot offset its years of losses against its years of gains, or cannot do so adequately, its policies are affected. It does not expand its operations, or it expands only those attended with a minimum of risk. People who recognize this situation are deterred from starting new enterprises. Thus old employers do not give more employment, or not as much more as they might have; and others decide not to become employers at all. Improved machinery and better-equipped factories come into existence much more slowly than they otherwise would. The result in the long run is that consumers are prevented from getting better and cheaper products, and that real wages are held down.

There is a similar effect when personal incomes are taxed 50, 60, 75 and 90 per cent. People begin to ask themselves why they should work six, eight or ten months of the entire year for the government, and only six, four or two months for themselves and their families. If they lose the whole dollar when they lose, but can keep only a dime of it when they win, they decide that it is foolish to take risks with their capital. In addition, the capital available for risk-taking itself shrinks enormously. It is being taxed away before it can be accumulated. In brief, capital to provide new private jobs is first prevented from coming into existence, and the part that does come into existence is then discouraged from starting new enterprises. The government spenders create the very problem of unemployment that they profess to solve.

A certain amount of taxes is of course indispensable to carry on essential government functions. Reasonable taxes for this purpose need not hurt production much. The kind of government services then supplied in return, which among other things safeguard production itself, more than compensate for this. But the larger the percentage of the national income taken by taxes the greater the deterrent to private production and employment. When the total tax burden grows beyond a bearable size, the problem of devising taxes that will not discourage and disrupt production becomes insoluble.

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Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.