THE horns have sounded and the hounds are baying. Across the developed world the hunt for more taxes from the wealthy is on. Recent austerity budgets in France and Italy slapped 3% surcharges on those with incomes above €500,000 ($680,000) and €300,000 respectively. Britain’s Tories are under attack for even considering getting rid of Labour’s “temporary” 50% top rate of income tax on earnings of over £150,000 ($235,000). Now Barack Obama has produced a new deficit-reduction plan that aims its tax increases squarely at the rich, including a “Buffett rule” to ensure that no household making more than $1m a year pays a lower average tax rate than “middle-class” families do (Warren Buffett has pointed out that, despite being a billionaire, he pays a lower average tax rate than his secretary). Tapping the rich to close the deficit is “not class warfare”, argues Mr Obama. “It’s math.”
Actually, it’s not simply math (or indeed maths). The question of whether to tax the wealthy more depends on political judgments about the right size of the state and the appropriate role for redistribution. The maths says deficits could technically be tamed by spending cuts alone – as Mr Obama’s Republican opponents advocate. Class warfare may be a loaded term, but it captures a fundamental debate in Western societies: who should suffer for righting public finances?
Leviathan should bear the brunt
In general, this newspaper’s instincts lie with small government and against ever higher taxation to pay for an unsustainable welfare state. We reject the notion, implicit in much of today’s debate, that higher tax rates on the wealthy are justified because of the finance industry’s role in the crunch: retribution is a poor rationale for taxation. Nor is the current pattern of contribution to the public purse obviously “unfair”: the richest
1% of Americans pay more than a quarter of all federal taxes (and fully 40% of income taxes), while taking less than 20% of pre-tax income. And knee-jerk rich-bashing, like Labour’s tax hike, seldom makes for good policy. High marginal tax rates discourage entrepreneurship, and no matter how much Mr Obama mentions “millionaires and billionaires”, higher taxes on them alone cannot close America’s deficit.
So the debate is poisonously skewed. But there are three good reasons why the wealthy should pay more tax – though not, by and large, in the ways that the rich world’s governments currently propose.
First, the West’s deficits should not be closed by spending cuts alone. Public spending should certainly take the brunt: there is plenty of scope to slim inefficient Leviathan, and studies of past deficit-cutting programmes suggest they work best when cuts predominate. Britain’s four-to-one ratio is about right. But, as that ratio implies, experience also argues that higher taxes should be part of the mix. In America the tax take is historically low after years of rate reductions. There, and elsewhere, tax rises need to bear some of the burden.
Second, there is a political argument for raising this new revenue from the rich. Spending cuts fall disproportionately on the less well-off; and, even before the crunch, median incomes were stagnating. Meanwhile, globalisation has been rewarding winners ever more generously. Voters’ support for ongoing austerity depends on a disproportionate share of any new revenue coming from the wealthy.