Archive for the ‘Supply-side economics’ Category

What’s the right way to define good tax policy? There are several possible answers to that question, including the all-important observation that the goal should be to only collect the amount of revenue needed to finance the legitimate functions of government, and not one penny above that amount.

But what if we want a more targeted definition? A simple principle to shape our understanding of tax policy?

I’m partial to what I wrote last year.

the essential insight of supply-side economics…when you tax something, you get less of it.

I’m not claiming this is my idea, by the way. It’s been around for a long time.

Indeed, it’s rumored that Reagan shared a version of this wisdom.

I don’t know if the Gipper actually said those exact words, but his grasp of tax policy was very impressive. And the changes he made led to very good results, even if folks on the left still refuse to believe the IRS data showing that Reagan’s lower tax rates on the rich generated more revenue.

In any event, our friends on the nanny-state left actually understand this principle when it suits their purposes. They propose sugar taxes, soda taxes, carbon taxes, housing taxes, tanning taxes, tobacco taxes, and even “adult entertainment” taxes with the explicit goal of using the tax code to reduce the consumption of things they don’t like.

I don’t like the idea of government trying to dictate people do with their own money, but these so-called sin taxes generally are successful because supply-siders are right about taxes impacting incentives.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always popular when statist governments impose such policies. At least not in Belarus, according to a story from RFERL.

Protests over a new tax aimed at reducing social welfare spread beyond the Belarusian capital, as thousands took to the streets in Homel and other towns. Along with similar protests two days earlier in Minsk, the February 19 demonstrations were some of the largest in the country in years. In Homel, near the border with Russia, at least 1,000 people marched and chanted slogans against the measure, known as the “Law Against Social Parasites.”

But what are “social parasites” and what does the law do?

…the law…requires people who were employed fewer than 183 days in a calendar year to pay a tax of about $200. …The measure is aimed at combating what President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has called “social parasitism.”

For what it’s worth, the Washington Post reports that the government had to back down.

The protesters won. On Thursday, Lukashenko announced that he won’t enforce the measure this year, though he’s not scrapping it. “We will not collect this money for 2016 from those who were meant to pay it,” he told the state news agency Belta. Those who have already paid will get a rebate if they get a job this year. The law, signed into effect in 2015, is reminiscent of Soviet-era crackdowns against the jobless, who undermined the state’s portrayal of a “workers’ paradise.”

That’s good news.

If people can somehow survive without working (assuming they’re not mooching off taxpayers, which is something that should be discouraged), more power to them. It’s not the life I would want, but it’s not the role of government to tax them if they don’t work. Or if they simply choose to work 182 days per year.

Mr. Lukashenko should concentrate instead on taking the heavy foot of government off the neck of his people. According to the most-recent Index of Economic Freedom, Belarus is only ranked #104, with especially weak scores for “rule of law” and “open markets.”

If he turns his country into a Slavic version of Hong Kong, based on free markets and small government, people will be clamoring to work. But I’m not holding my breath expecting that to happen.

P.S. While government shouldn’t tax people for not working, it’s also a bad idea to subsidize them for not working. Indeed, there’s even a version of the Laffer Curve for poverty and redistribution.

P.P.S. Given the low freedom ranking for Belarus, I suspect the real parasites in that country (just like in the U.S.) are the various interest groups that are feeding from the government trough.

P.P.P.S. On an amusing note, here’s the satirical British video on killing the poor instead of taxing them.

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I shared yesterday an example of how a big tax increase on expensive homes led to fewer sales. Indeed, the drop was so pronounced that the government didn’t just collect less money than projected, which is a very common consequence when fiscal burdens increase, but it actually collected less money than before the tax hike was enacted.

That’s the Laffer Curve on steroids.

The purpose of that column was to share with my leftist friends an example of a tax increase that achieved something they desired (i.e., putting a damper on sales of expensive houses) in hopes of getting them to understand that higher taxes on other types of economic activity also will have similar effects.

And some of those “other types of economic activity” will be things that they presumably like, such as job creation, entrepreneurship, and upward mobility.

I now have another example to share. The New York Times is reporting that a Mexican tax on soda is causing a big drop in soda consumption.

In the first year of a big soda tax in Mexico, sales of sugary drinks fell. In the second year, they fell again, according to new research. The finding represents the best evidence to date of how sizable taxes on sugary drinks, increasingly favored by large American cities, may influence consumer behavior.

This is an amazing admission. Those first three sentences of the article are an acknowledgement of the central premise of supply-side economics: The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

In other words, taxes do alter behavior. In the wonky world of economics, this is simply the common-sense observation that demand curves are downward-sloping. When the price of something goes up (in this case, because of taxes), the quantity that is demanded falls and there is less output.

And here’s another remarkable admission in the story. The effect of taxes on behavior can be so significant that revenues are impacted.

The results…matter for policy makers who hope to use the money raised by such taxes to fund other projects. …some public officials may be dismayed… Philadelphia passed a large soda tax last year and earmarked most of its proceeds to pay for a major expansion to prekindergarten. City budget officials had assumed that the tax would provide a stable source of revenue for education. If results there mirror those of Mexico, city councilors may eventually have to find the education money elsewhere.

Wow, not just an admission of supply-side economics, but also an acknowledgement of the Laffer Curve.

Now if we can get the New York Times to admit that these principle also apply to taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship, that will be a remarkable achievement.

P.S. Leftists are capable of amazing hypocrisy, so I won’t be holding my breath awaiting the consistent application of the NYT‘s newfound knowledge.

P.P.S. Just because some folks on the left are correct about the economic impact of soda taxes, that doesn’t mean they are right on policy. As a libertarian, I don’t think it’s the government’s job to dictate (or even influence) what we eat and drink.

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In my never-ending strategy to educate policy makers about the Laffer Curve, I generally rely on both microeconomic theory (i.e., people respond to incentives) and real-world examples.

And my favorite real-world example is what happened in the 1980s when Reagan cut the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. Critics said Reagan’s reforms would deprive the Treasury of revenue and result in rich people paying a lot less tax. So I share IRS data on annual tax revenues from those making more than $200,000 per year to show that there was actually a big increase in revenue from upper-income taxpayers.

It has slowly dawned on me, though, that this may not be the best example to share if I’m trying to convince skeptical statists. After all, they presumably don’t like Reagan and they may viscerally reject my underlying point about the Laffer Curve since I’m linking it to the success of Reaganomics.

So I have a new strategy for getting my leftist friends to accept the Laffer Curve. I’m instead going to link the Laffer Curve to “successful” examples of left-wing policy. To be more specific, statists like to use the power of government to control our behavior, often by imposing mandates and regulations. But sometimes they impose taxes on things they don’t like.

And if I can use those example to teach them the basic lesson of supply-side economics (if you tax something, you get less of it), hopefully they’ll apply that lesson when contemplating higher taxes on thing they presumably do like (such as jobs, growth, competitiveness, etc).

Here’s a list of “successful” leftist tax hikes that have come to my attention.

Now I’m going to augment this list with an example from the United Kingdom.

By way of background, there’s been a heated housing market in England, with strong demand leading to higher prices. The pro-market response is to allow more home-building, but the anti-developer crowd doesn’t like that approach, so instead a big tax on high-value homes was imposed.

And as the Daily Mail reports, this statist approach has been so “successful” that the tax hike has resulted in lower tax revenues.

George Osborne’s controversial tax raid on Britain’s most expensive homes has triggered a dramatic slump in stamp duty revenues. Sales of properties worth more than £1.5million fell by almost 40 per cent last year, according to analysis of Land Registry figures… This has caused the total amount of stamp duty collected by the Treasury to fall by around £440million, from £1.079billion to a possible £635.7million. The figures cover the period between April and November last year compared to the same period in 2015.

Our leftist friends, who sometimes openly admit that they want higher taxes on the rich even if the government doesn’t actually collect any extra revenue, should be especially happy because the tax has made life more difficult for people with more wealth and higher incomes.

Those buying a £1.5 million house faced an extra £18,750 in stamp duty. …Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg…described Mr Osborne’s ‘punitive’ stamp duty hikes as the ‘politics of envy’, adding that they have also failed because they have raised less money for the Treasury.

By the way, the fact that the rich paid less tax last year isn’t really the point. Instead, the lesson to be learned is that a tax increase caused there to be less economic activity.

So I won’t care if the tax on expensive homes brings in more money next year, but I will look to see if fewer homes are being sold compared to when this tax didn’t exist.

And if my leftist friends say they don’t care if fewer expensive homes are being sold, I’ll accept they have achieved some sort of victory. But I’ll ask them to be intellectually consistent and admit that they are implementing a version of supply-side economics and that they are embracing the notion that tax rates change behavior.

Once that happens, it’s hopefully just a matter of time before they recognize that it’s not a good idea to impose high tax rates on things that are unambiguously good for an economy, such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Yes, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In addition to theory and real-world examples, my other favorite way of convincing people about the Laffer Curve is to share the poll showing that only 15 percent of certified public accountants agree with the leftist view that taxes have no impact have taxable income. I figure that CPAs are a very credible source since they actually do tax returns and have an inside view of how behavior changes in response to tax policy.

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For more than 30 years, I’ve been trying to educate my leftist friends about supply-side economics and the Laffer Curve.

Why is it so hard for them to recognize, I endlessly wonder, that when you tax something, you get less of it? And why don’t they realize that when you tax something at high rates, the effect is even larger?

And if the tax is high and the affected economic activity is sufficiently discouraged, why won’t they admit that this will have an impact on tax revenue?

Don’t they understand the basic economics of supply and demand?

But I’m not giving up, which means I’m either a fool or an optimist.

In this Skype interview with the Blaze’s Dana Loesch, I pontificate about the economy and tax policy.

I made my standard points about the benefits a lower corporate rate and “expensing,” while also warning about the dangers of the the “border adjustable tax” being pushed by some House Republicans.

But for today, I want to focus on the part of the interview where I suggested that a lower corporate tax rate might generate more revenue in the long run.

That wasn’t a throwaway line or an empty assertion. America’s 35 percent corporate tax rate (39 percent if you include the average of state corporate taxes) is destructively high compared to business tax systems in other nations.

Last decade, the experts at the American Enterprise Institute calculated that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent.

More recently, the number crunchers at the Tax Foundation estimated the long-run revenue-maximizing rate is even lower, at about 15 percent.

You can (and should) read their studies, but all you really need to understand is that companies will have a greater incentive to both earn and report more income when the rate is reasonable.

But since the U.S. rate is very high (and we also have very punitive rules), companies are discouraged from investing and producing in America. Firms also have an incentive to seek out deductions, credits, exemptions, and other preferences when rates are high. And multinational companies understandably will seek to minimize the amount of income they report in the United States.

In other words, a big reduction in the corporate rate would be unambiguously positive for the American economy. And because there will be more investment and job creation, there also will be more taxable income. In other words, a bigger “tax base.”

Though I confess that I’m not overly fixated on whether that leads to more revenue. Remember, the goal of tax policy should be to finance the legitimate functions of government in the least-destructive manner possible, not to maximize revenue for politicians.

P.S. Economists at the Australian Treasury calculated the effect of a lower corporate rate and found both substantial revenue feedback and significant benefits for workers. The same thing would happen in the United States.

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Yesterday was “Australia Day,” which I gather for Aussies is sort of like the 4th of July for Americans.

To belatedly celebrate for our friends Down Under, I suppose we could sing Waltzing Matilda.

But since I’m a policy wonk with a special fondness for the nation, let’s instead acknowledge Australia Day by citing some very interesting research

Economists at the Australian Treasury crunched the numbers and estimated the economic effects of a lower corporate tax rate. They had several levers in their model for how this change could be financed, including increases in other taxes.

Corporate income taxes are one of the most destructive ways for a government to generate revenue, so it’s not surprising that the study concluded that a lower rate would be desirable under just about any circumstance.

But what caught my attention was the section that looked at the economic impact of a lower corporate tax rate that is offset by a reduction in the burden of government spending. The consequences are very positive.

This subsection reports the findings from the model simulation of a company income tax rate cut from 30 to 25 per cent, leaving all other tax rates unchanged and assuming any shortfall in revenue across all jurisdictions is financed by a cut in government spending. …Under this scenario, GNI is expected to rise by 0.7 per cent in the long run (see Chart 9). …the improvement in real GNI is largely due to the gain in labour income. Underlying the gain in COE is an estimated rise in before-tax real wages of around 1.1 per cent and a rise in employment of 0.1 per cent.

For readers unfamiliar with economic jargon, GNI is gross national income and COE is compensation of employees.

And here’s the chart that was referenced. Note that workers (labour income) actually get more benefit from the lower corporate rate than investors (capital income).

So the bottom line is that a lower corporate tax rate leads to more economic output, with workers enjoying higher incomes.

And higher output and increased income also means more taxable income. And this larger “tax base” means that there is a Laffer Curve impact on tax revenues.

No, the lower corporate tax rate isn’t self financing. That only happens in rare circumstances.

But the study notes that about half of the revenue lost because of the lower corporate rate is recovered thanks to additional economic activity.

…After second-round effects, it is estimated that government spending must be cut by 51 cents for every dollar of direct net company tax cut. It is also estimated that 13 cents of every dollar cut is recovered through higher personal income tax receipts in the long run, while 14 cents is recovered thorough higher company income tax receipts. In the long run, the total revenue dividend from the company tax cut is estimated to be around 49 cents per dollar lost through the company tax cut

Here’s the relevant chart showing these results.

And the study specifically notes that the economic benefits of a lower corporate rate are largest when it is accompanied by less government spending.

A decrease in the company income tax rate financed by lower government spending implies a significantly higher overall welfare gain when compared with the previous scenarios of around 0.7 percentage points… As anticipated in the theoretical discussion, when viewed from the standpoint of the notional owners of the factors of production, the welfare gain is largely due to a significant improvement in labour income due to higher after-tax real wages.

By the way, the paper does speculate whether the benefits (of a lower corporate rate financed in part by less government spending) are overstated because they don’t capture benefits that might theoretically be generated by government spending. That’s a possibility, to be sure.

But it’s far more likely that the benefits are understated because government spending generates negative macroeconomic and microeconomic effects.

In the conclusion, the report sensibly points out that higher productivity is the way to increase higher living standards. And if that’s the goal, a lower corporate tax rate is a very good recipe.

Australia’s terms of trade, labour force participation and population growth are expected to be flat or declining in the foreseeable future which implies any improvement in Australia’s living standards must be driven by a higher level of labour productivity. This paper shows that a company income tax cut can do that, even after allowing for increases in other taxes or cutting government spending to recover lost revenue, by lowering the before tax cost of capital. This encourages investment, which in turn increases the capital stock and labour productivity.

This is spot on. A punitive corporate income tax is a very destructive way of generating revenue for government.

Which is why I hope American policy makers pay attention to this research. We already have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world (arguably the entire world depending on how some severance taxes in poor nations are counted), and we magnify the damage with onerous rules that further undermine competitiveness.

P.S. By world standards, Australia has a lot of economic freedom. But that’s in part a sad indictment on the global paucity of market-oriented nations. There are some very good policies Down Under, but the fiscal burden of government is far too large. The current government is taking some small steps in the right direction (lower corporate rate, decentralization), but much more is needed.

P.P.S. In the interest of being a good neighbor, the Australian government should immediately put an end to its crazy effort to force Vanuatu to adopt an income tax.

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I don’t like tax increases, but I like having additional evidence that higher tax rates change behavior. So when my leftist friends “win” by imposing tax hikes, I try to make lemonade out of lemons by pointing out “supply-side” effects.

I’m hoping that if leftists see how tax hikes are “successful” in discouraging things that they think are bad (such as consumers buying sugary soda or foreigners buying property), then maybe they’ll realize it’s not such a good idea to tax – and therefore discourage – things that everyone presumably agrees are desirable (such as work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship).

Though I sometimes worry that they actually do understand that taxes impact pro-growth behavior and simply don’t care.

But one thing that clearly is true is that they get very worried if tax increases threaten their political viability.

This is why Becket Adams, in a column for the Washington Examiner, is rather amused that Mayor Kenney of Philadelphia has been caught with his hand in the tax cookie jar.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney fought hard to pass a new tax on soda and other sugary drinks. He won, and the 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax is now in place, affecting both merchants and consumers, because that’s how taxes work. Businesses pay the levies, and they offset the cost by charging higher prices. That is as basic as it gets. The only person who doesn’t seem to understand this is Kenney, who is now accusing business owners of extortion. “They’re gouging their own customers,” the mayor said.

Yes, consumers are being extorted and gouged, but the Mayor isn’t actually upset about that.

He’s irked because people are learning that it’s his fault.

Philadelphians are obviously outraged by the skyrocketing cost of things as simple as a soda, which has prompted some businesses to post signs explaining why the drinks are now do damned expensive. Kenney said that this effort by businesses to explain the rising cost is “wrong” and “misleading.” The mayor apparently thought the city council could impose a major new tax on businesses, and that customers somehow wouldn’t be affected.

In other words, it’s probably safe to say that Mayor Kenney has no regrets about the soda tax. He’s just not pleased that he can’t blame merchants for the price increase.

The International Monetary Fund, by contrast, may actually have learned a real lesson that higher taxes aren’t always a good idea. That bureaucracy is infamous for blindly supporting tax increases, but if we can believe this story from the Wall Street Journal, even those bureaucrats don’t think additional tax hikes in Greece would be a good idea.

IMF officials have said Greece’s economy is already overtaxed. New taxes that came into affect on Jan. 1 are squeezing household incomes further. Economists say even-higher income taxes—in the form of lower tax-free income allowances—could add to a mountain of unpaid taxes. Greeks currently owe the state €94 billion ($99 billion), equivalent to 54% of gross domestic product, and rising, in taxes that they can’t pay.

Here are some stories to illustrate the onerous tax system in Greece, starting with a retired couple that will probably lose their house because of a new property tax.

…the 87-year-old former economist and his 81-year-old wife are unable to repay the property tax imposed on their 70-year old house, a family inheritance. The annual tax is around ‎€33,000, but Mr. Kokkalis’s pension—already cut by half—is €28,000 a year. The couple borrowed money when the tax was imposed, initially as a temporary austerity measure in 2011. But they are already behind on nearly €200,000 of tax payments and can’t borrow more. Mr. Kokkalis says the state is calculating tax based on outdated property prices that have since collapsed, and that if he tried to sell the house now, nobody would be interested. “They impose taxes on an imaginary value,” Mr. Kokkalis says. “This is confiscation.”

I’ve already written about this punitive property tax. The good news is that property taxes generally are transparent, so people know how much they’re paying.

The bad news is that the tax in Greece is far too onerous.

And I’ve also noted that small businesses are being wiped out in Greece as well. The WSJ has a new example.

Tax increases under previous rounds of austerity have put a middle-class lifestyle beyond reach for many. “Our only goal now is survival,” says arts teacher Mimi Bonanou. Until recent years she also made a living as a practicing artist, selling her works in Greece and abroad. But increasingly heavy taxes that self-employed Greeks must pay at the start of each year, based on the state’s often-ambitious forecast of their incomes, have forced her to rely on teaching alone.

All things considered, Greece is a painful example that a country can’t tax its way to prosperity (though some politicians never learned that lesson).

Moreover, it’s nice to have further evidence that even the IMF recognizes that Greece is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

And if a left-leaning bureaucracy is now willing to admit that excessive taxation can lead to less revenue, maybe eventually the Republicans on Capitol Hill will install people at the Joint Committee on Taxation who also understand this elementary insight.

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There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as the private sector gets to grow at a faster pace.

Now we get to Will’s main point. He suggests that maybe libertarians shouldn’t be so fixated on the size of government.

…well-funded and well-organized attempts “to convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending” so far have all failed. It’s time to consider the possibility that there’s no convincing them. …If we look at the world, what we see is that when people get richer, they want more welfare state. Maybe there’s nothing much we can do about that. …When people get richer, they want more welfare state. You can want Americans to get continuously wealthier and also want the government to consume a smaller share of national economic output, but there’s very little reason to think you can have both of those things. That is what the world is telling us.

To the extent that Will is simply making a prediction about the likelihood of continued government expansion, I assume (and fear) he’s right.

But to the degree he’s arguing that we should meekly acquiesce to that outcome, then I’ll strongly disagree. I may lose the fight against big government, but I intend to go down swinging.

Interestingly, Will and I may not actually disagree. This passage points out that it’s a good idea to fight against ineffective programs and to support entitlement reform.

…accepting that it’s probably not possible to shrink government would have a transformative effect on right-leaning politics. We would focus on figuring out the best ways to match receipts to outlays… You start to accept that spending cuts are ultimately more about optimizing the composition and effectiveness of spending than about the overall level of spending or its rate of growth. This doesn’t mean not fighting like hell to slash nonsense programs, or not prioritizing reforms to make entitlement programs fiscally sustainable, or not trying to balance budgets from the spending side, or not trying to minimize the rate of spending growth. This just means that you do it all knowing that the rate of spending growth isn’t going to go negative unless you hit a recession, a debt crisis, or end a major war.

And, most important, this passage also highlights the desirability of a policy to “minimize the rate of spending growth.”

Gee, I think I know someone who relentlessly argues in favor of that approach. Indeed, this guy is so fixated on that policy that he even created a “Rule” to give the concept more attention.

I can’t remember his name right now, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy.

More seriously (and to echo the point I made above), it would be a libertarian victory to have government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy. To be sure, obeying my rule (which actually does happen every so often) doesn’t mean we’ll soon reach the libertarian Nirvana of the “night watchman” state set forth in the Constitution.

But the real fiscal fight in America is whether government is becoming a bigger burden, relative to the private economy, or whether its growth is being constrained so that it’s becoming a smaller burden.

Will closes with a very sensible point about not overlooking the other policy areas where government is hindering prosperity (though that doesn’t require us to give up on the very practical quest to limit the growth of government).

Giving up on the quixotic quest to…falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to…focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth.

And his concluding passage is correct, but too pessimistic.

This is just a conjecture. But when…the United States—where the freedom-as-small-government philosophy is most powerfully promoted and most widely accepted—has lost ground in economic freedom year after year for nearly two decades, it’s a conjecture worth taking very seriously.

Yes, he’s right that overall economic freedom has declined during the Bush-Obama years.

But what about the fact that overall economic freedom increased during the ReaganClinton years? And what about the fact that we achieved a five-year nominal spending freeze even with Obama in the White House?

In other words, there’s no need to throw in the towel. I may not be overflowing with optimism about whether we ultimately succeed in sufficiently constraining the growth of government, but I feel very confident that it’s a worthwhile fight.

P.S. While I disagree with a few of Will’s points, I think his article is very worthwhile. Moreover, a consensus on restraining the growth of government would be an excellent outcome to the debate he has triggered.

But I can’t resist being a bit more critical about something Noah Smith wrote about Will’s article. In his Bloomberg column discussing the hypothesis that libertarians should focus less on (or perhaps even give up on) the battle against government spending, he has a passage that is designed to lure readers into thinking that small government is associated with economic deprivation.

…a stark fact — the richer a country is, the more its government tends to spend. …Today, the top spenders include countries such as France, Denmark and Finland, while the small-government ranks include Sudan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.


It’s true that the burden of government spending is much higher in France, Denmark, and Finland than in Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, but let’s take a look at the overall data from Economic Freedom of the World.

France (#57), Denmark (#21), and Finland (#20) are all much more market-oriented than Sudan (unrated, but would have an awful score), Nigeria (#113), and Bangladesh (#121). Smith’s argument is akin to me saying that government-built roads cause economic misery because that’s how they do it in the hellhole of North Korea.

More important, he either ignores or is unaware of the research showing that nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland became rich when government spending was very small. Sigh, again.

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