Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 17: OBJECTS AND PRINCIPLES OF TAXATION - Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems
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CHAPTER 17: OBJECTS AND PRINCIPLES OF TAXATION - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems 
Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems, 2nd edition, revised (New York: The Century Co., 1923).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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OBJECTS AND PRINCIPLES OF TAXATION
§ 1. Public finance as a division of economics. § 2. The police function. § 3. Social and industrial functions. § 4. The enlarging sphere of the state. § 5. Industrial revenues of governments. § 6. Governmental receipts from loans. § 7. Non-revenue character of receipts from loans. § 8. Revenues from taxation. § 9. Kinds of taxes. §10. Defective tax “systems.” § 11. Various standards of justice suggested. § 12. Social welfare as the aim. § 13. Principles of administration. § 14. Shifting and incidence. § 15. Taxes as costs. § 16. Taxation and socialism.
§ 1. Public finance as a division of economics. Men live together in politically organized societies which employ public officials as agents to carry on the functions of government. Every governmental unit, large or small, may be viewed not only as a political body, but as an economic enterprise. Each has its economic aspects, such as receipts and expenditures, employer and employee, borrowing and lending, etc. Each political unit is in this sense an “economy.” The study of the public economy, of the economic aspects of government as distinguished from its political aspects, constitutes the science of public finance, an important division, though not the whole, of political economy.
The primary fact determining the public finances is the extent of the sphere of “the state,” meaning by the state the totality of political powers and functions in a community. There are two typical ideals of a state, each with corresponding functions: the ideal of the police state, and that of the social-industrial state. In fact, every system of government provides for the exercise of both functions in some measure. The police function is primary. All governments alike exercise it, but they differ most in respect to the degree in which they exercise the social-industrial functions.
§ 2. The police function. The police function is that of public defense and the maintenance of domestic order. In family or patriarchal communities all share a common income and combine in the common defense; but self-preservation often has compelled such small communities to form a large, stronger state for the common defense. Public defense requires sacrifice of some independence on the part of the family and of the individual. Personal service in the field gives place later, in some measure, to the payment of taxes, so that a regular income may permit the government to attain a more regular, continuing, and perfect organization of military forces.
As political unity and power grow, the citizens need less often protection against foreign foes, and they need more often, relatively, defense against the aggressions of some of their own countrymen. The preservation of domestic order requires police, courts of justice, and other agencies. The ideal of the anarchist to do without government is nowhere realized. Everywhere there must be government to preserve peace and to protect property. Unfortunately, this need grows with the growing density of population. Crime increases when men swarm in great cities. The courts, which settle disputes between men, and which interpret their contracts, are agencies of peace, displacing physical contests. To maintain and operate the various parts of the social machinery requires ever-increasing governmental revenues. From many causes government has, in modern times, grown increasingly costly.
§ 3. Social and industrial functions. The social and industrial functions of government seem naturally to grow out of the primary ones just mentioned. In a democratic society, popular education is a necessity, as it appears that domestic order is not possible in a democratic state without intelligent citizens. The system of public education has, in many states, expanded to include a publicly supported university as the dominant educational and scientific organ of the community. Some industrial functions are performed by the government in connection with the primary needs. Lighthouses are necessary to guide the navy, but they also serve to guide the merchant marine and to aid industry. The post was established as an agent of political and military government to connect the ruler with the outposts (a fact the name post indicates), but the postal service has grown in every country to be a great industrial and social agency. The consular service, originating in the political need of keeping official representatives in foreign lands, has become a valuable economic agency; consuls are commercial agents, advancing the business interests of their countries in all quarters of the globe.
§ 4. The enlarging sphere of the state. A mere police state would leave to private initiative the provision of every kind of economic agency not needed for political government. The state might, for example, even leave the provision of roads and bridges to private individuals or to companies, permitting them to charge tolls to obtain a return on their investment. Whenever a toll-road is made public and a toll-bridge becomes free, and the state maintains the roads, it is becoming less strictly a mere police state. Reacting from the ideal of the police state, which was most highly praised in the first half of the nineteenth century, the functions of government have been extending in many directions in the last half century. More and more, economic functions are performed through the agency of government. If we think of an act as done by the government for private citizens, we call it paternalism; but if we think of an act as done by citizens collectively for themselves, as the best way to get these things done, we may call it, in a broad sense, socialism, (meaning not a political party, but a principle of social action).
Government is in one aspect a direct good to its citizens. In return for its collective cost, men collectively get the enjoyment of social organization, markedly in contrast with the uncertain ties and hazards of primitive communities. But government becomes also a mode of social investment, an indirect agent, a productive enterprise. Wealth applied through it secures in some cases a greater product than is possible by individual action.
But when the government undertakes these various tasks the expense falls unequally on individuals and affects differently their incomes. When free schools take the place of private schools, the law compels every one to contribute to education. To many individuals it is a matter of indifference whether they pay tuition or taxes, but the wealthy bachelor sometimes grumbles when forced to help in educating the day-laborer’s family. The average result of a certain social policy may be right, but individuals diverge from the average and thus have constantly a motive to attempt to change the limits of governmental action. Happily, the subject is not always viewed with selfish eyes. The ethical and patriotic thought is not, “How will this affect my interests?” but, “How will it affect the general interests?” But, as the question of value is always involved, men are usually found favoring or opposing the industrial and social activity of the state according as it affects their own incomes. Thus the determination of the sphere of the state is in large part an economic question.
§ 5. Industrial revenues of governments. The costs of government at any stage are met in varying degrees in one of three ways: (1) from industrial sources, (2) by borrowing and thus creating a public debt, (3) from taxation.
Receipts from industrial sources in the broad sense include all rents from wealth owned, interest on loans made, and proceeds of sales from enterprises conducted, by the government. In feudal times, these were mostly obtained in the form of rents from the private domains of kings and nobles. In many early and medieval states these sources of receipts were adequate to the need of government; then they decreased in many countries, both relatively and absolutely, because of the sale of publicly owned wealth (lands and mines), and with the recent extension of the functions of government have again increased very rapidly. Now industrial revenues come not only from the rents of forests, mines, docks, lands, and buildings, but from profits in the operation of industrial enterprises, such as waterworks, railways, mines, and factories, and from interest on funds deposited in banks or otherwise invested. At present the industrial revenues of the aggregate governments of the United States (national, state, and municipal) amount to about a fifth of all revenue receipts. Since the middle of the nineteenth century the number and variety of the industrial enterprises undertaken by governments has been steadily increasing, and this increase has been most marked in the cities. The change in this respect in the United States, great as it has been, has proceeded more slowly than in the European countries.
In 1913 the receipts of this nature (earnings of departments and of public service enterprises) were nearly $500,000,000. The larger part of this sum comes to the national government ($288,000,000), mostly from the post-office department. Most of the remainder comes to the minor divisions ($176,000,000), and but little to the states. The total “earnings” (this means here receipts, not profits) of public service enterprises in incorporated places were $120,000,000. Revenues obtained by the sale of goods are prices, such as water rates, or (if paid for the performance by an official for a service to legalize an act, as recording deeds, issuing licenses, etc.) are fees (frequently constituting the income, in lieu of salary, of the official, but sometimes paid into the public treasury).
§ 6. Governmental receipts from loans. The funds to invest in these commercial undertakings are originally obtained in nearly all cases from public loans. Almost every unit or division of government may become a borrower to provide for its citizens at once certain needed advantages and improvements when the funds are not at hand and immediate taxation is deemed too heavy a burden.
The indebtedness (less funds available for payment of debt) of the aggregate governments of the United States in 1913 was:
The debts of the states and the minor divisions slowly and steadily increased after this date, and that of the nation leaped up in 1918 to $11,000,000,000 and in 1919 (at the maximum) to $25,000,000,000.
Nearly all public debt other than national has been created for the purpose of peaceful social and industrial development. The debts of the American states have partly been made necessary to meet deficits in current expenses, but largely to construct canals, to erect public buildings, and of late to purchase forest-lands and to build roads. The minor divisions are counties, cities, villages, boroughs, towns, townships, and special districts for schools, drainage, irrigation, levees, fire protection, poor relief, roads, and various other purposes. Every one of them has more or less legal power to incur debts and to levy taxes for the purpose of paying the interest and of repaying the principal. The purposes for which the debts are incurred by specially organized districts are mainly indicated in the names (e. g., drainage, irrigation), while the regular political divisons of counties, cities, villages, towns, townships, incur debts for many objects, such as streets, sewage disposal, water supply, electric-light or gas plants, schoolhouses, libraries, and other public buildings. Large expenditures for these purposes are necessary because the local governments are undertaking new functions, and either existing equipment (such as waterworks systems and street railways) must be bought from private companies or new ones must be built. They are necessary further because the rapid growth of population calls for an immediate “capital investment,” the payment of which may be, through borrowing, more easily spread over a series of years (e. g., in the extension of streets and paving and in the provision of schoolhouses for the children).
The larger part of nearly every national debt has been incurred for war or preparation for war. The total debts of the national governments of the world just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 were estimated at about $44,000,000,000.1 The total at the close of the war is estimated to be near $300,000,000,000.2 This amount has been, and will be, very largely increased in the later figures for the war period and for the after-war period, while almost everywhere expenses continue to exceed revenues. It is impossible to appraise at all definitely the ultimate fiscal burden of these debts in the present disordered condition of the monetary systems and in the precarious state of the finances in many of the countries. Russia, under the Bolshevik régime, has blankly repudiated its debt of $25,000,000,000 but doubtless will reacknowledge parts of it ultimately as a condition to the establishment of its national credit. Numerous states are near the verge of bankruptcy and it is now impossible to predict what adjustments they may be forced to make with their creditors. The debts of some leading solvent countries, as estimated in 1920, are
§ 7. Non-revenue character of receipts from loans. The proceeds from loans (and certain other items of sales) are called non-revenue receipts, because they are but in anticipation of receipts from other sources. The economic theory of such loans is essentially the same as that of private loans, but it is the people of the political district collectively that are the borrowers. To get the present uses of goods, they sell their promise to make future payments totaling a larger amount. The loan is the present worth of those promises. In the case of loans made for local purposes, provision is now usually made for their complete repayment within a definite number of years, usually ten, or twenty, or thirty. Meantime interest is payable annually or semi-annually, and from some source an additional sum is collected to repay a part of the loan, sometimes by redeeming a certain part annually, sometimes by accumulating a sinking fund until that amounts to the whole debt.
The minor divisions in the United States are thus constantly creating debts at the rate of about $2,000,000,000 each year, and at the same time paying former debts in instalments, in a total amount somewhat less than this. In the case of some municipal investments that are commercial enterprises (such as those supplying gas, electricity, and water), these annual payments can be made out of the profits; in the case of others, the payments come from special assessments upon the owners; and in most other cases they are collected by the usual methods of taxation. In America a large part of these costs are, by the law of special assessments, placed upon the owners of adjacent lands, whose outlays are usually more than offset by the increased value of their lands as a result of the improvements. In this case also, the present investment is in anticipation of the future incomes which the owners of the improved lands will get.
§ 8. Revenues from taxation. Much the largest part of the receipts of most governments, apart from loans, and in many cases nearly all such revenue receipts, come from taxation. Tax (as a verb) meant originally to touch or handle, then to estimate or appraise, and then to charge a burden upon some one, especially to impose a payment of services, goods, or money upon persons or property for the support of government. Taxation is the legal process of taking income, services, or wealth from private persons for public uses.
Taxes are of various kinds, but they always are incomes, or wealth representing future incomes, transferred from private ownership of the taxpayers to the government. In rare cases, more than the net current income of a certain kind may be taken for public uses. As economic income has many sources, it may be intercepted at many different points, and taxation may take various forms. The differences are so manifold that it is difficult to classify particular taxes satisfactorily. There are border-line cases where it is difficult to decide whether a particular payment to the government in the form of a fee, price, or special assessment is in the legal sense a tax or not. Some courts have, for example, decided that for certain purposes a special assessment is to be called a tax, and in certain other cases it is not to be if this would defeat the evident and just intention of the legislature.
§ 9. Kinds of taxes. The following are the kinds of taxes most frequently referred to.
(a) The simplest tax is a poll tax, a uniform amount payable by every person of the taxable class. This form of tax is being less and less used in America, and now amounts to little more than $17,000,000,3 this being only .6 of the 1 per cent of the aggregate taxes in the United States. The national government gets about one fourth of this amount from a tax on immigrants, and the rest is collected by (some of) the states, counties, and minor divisions. Usually the poll tax is imposed only upon voters, as a condition to the right to vote.
(b) Taxes may be laid upon incomes, as they come into the possession of the owner. Usually only monetary incomes that arise in commercial transactions are taxable, and no attempt is made to estimate the value of psychic incomes. Commercial incomes are more easily measured, but the omission of the other elements must cause many inequalities in the burden of the tax as between two individuals controlling equal incomes of real things.
(c) Taxes may be on property, either general, upon all property in the taxing district, or special, upon certain forms of property. A property tax may be specific or ad valorem, in proportion to value, as to the method of its determination. Since the value of material wealth is the capitalization of the rentals at the prevailing rate of interest, a general ad valorem property tax, as far as it applies to material wealth, and if it were accurately assessed, would take an approximately equal proportion of wealth-incomes. It does not, of course, touch directly incomes derived from wages and salaries, but it reduces their purchasing power in many cases. It is in some respects more searching than a tax on actual rents, for it reaches the prospective, or speculative, rental.
(d) Taxes may be on expenditure (sometimes called taxes on consumption). This is but another mode of attacking income, for in the long run most income is spent, not always by the individual who earned it, but by some one, and thus it is reached by a tax on expenditure. Usually in the United States the tariff duties are accounted to be taxes on expenditure, as also the internal revenues (also called excises) of the national government. In time of war, internal revenues are extended in the United States to a multitude of articles, but usually they have been limited (with minor exceptions) to liquor and tobacco. Most of these taxes are in fact levied not at the time of purchase by the ultimate consumer, but upon the specific goods in the hands of some merchant or business agency, and some of them are essentially special property taxes and others are business taxes of the kind next to be mentioned.
(e) Taxes may be levied on selected agencies of industry or on the process of business; such are business taxes, licenses, taxes on investment in business, and corporation taxes. These burdens are diffused and rest eventually on some income, rarely to be ascertained exactly.
§ 10. Defective tax “systems.” The actual tax laws of each division of government in a country combine the various forms in different proportions. Most of the federal taxes are from tariff duties and from internal revenues, the latter include a variety of special business and property taxes and, since 1913, the federal income tax. The largest receipts of states, of counties, and of minor divisions are from property taxes, some special but most of them general in form. Among the various states a wide diversity is found. Some use the general property tax for all the divisions (state and local), while others (several of the northern states and California) have separated the sources of state and local taxation, taxing corporations for state purposes and most other forms of wealth for local purposes. Some states, particularly those of the South, make large use of licenses and taxes on business both for state and local purposes.
The tax laws of many states have been much modified of late and are still in process of change. It is only in a loose sense that one can speak of the tax “system” of any state, made up as it is of so many diverse elements, each used to tap in some independent way some source of private income for public purposes. Every tax “system” has grown up more or less accidentally, guided by no more of a general principle than the advice of the cynical old statesman—so to pluck the feathers of the goose that it will squawk as little as possible. Thus, everywhere, the existing situation must be largely accounted for by custom and ignorance, by the weakness of some classes and the undue influence of other classes, rather than by clearly thought out principles soundly administered.
§ 11. Various standards of justice suggested. There have not been lacking earnest attempts to arrive at some general principles. Various standards have been suggested to measure the distribution of the burden of taxation, the chief being benefit, equality, ability, sacrifice, and social welfare. Each of these terms is capable of various interpretations which have changed from time to time. The benefit derived by any citizen from most of the public services evidently cannot be applied in any literal sense to strong and weak, to rich and poor. It is possible, however, to interpret equality with reference not to objective goods, but to the psychic sacrifice occasioned by taxation. Ability is of many kinds and may be differently understood. Some think ability to bear taxation is “in exact proportion to the money income”; others believe that it increases at a greater rate than money income, and favor, therefore, progressive taxation, that is, higher rates on the larger incomes. The standard of sacrifice is closely related to that of ability, looking, however, to the psychic effect of depriving the taxpayer of his income. It lends itself even more readily than does the standard of ability to the application of the marginal principle of valuation, and results in progressive taxation.
§ 12. Social welfare as the aim. The conflicting interests of the various classes of taxpayers in each period are to some degree softened by the prevailing public opinion, sometimes called the social conscience, and taxes are adjusted according to a vaguely held ideal of the social welfare. Social expediency, more or less broadly interpreted, determines who shall be taxed and what social results are to be sought. The exemptions from taxation in feudal times were great and, viewed from our standpoint, were inequitable, for the upper classes escaped while the peasants bore most of the burdens. The landlords and nobility, who were assumed to be performing important social functions, generally had outgrown their usefulness in the period preceding the French Revolution, which swept away many of these abuses.
Exemptions from taxation are granted liberally in most states to-day on some kinds of wealth and to some classes of citizens, because of their supposed relations to the public interest. Real estate and equipment devoted to educational, religious, and charitable purposes, the homes of priests and ministers, homesteads purchased with pension money, as well as all public lands, buildings, and equipment, are exempt.
The social interest requires that taxes be both elastic and productive, so that the needs of the government shall be amply provided for. The harmonizing of these needs in the laws of taxation requires a high degree of wisdom, of foresight, and of integrity in the legislator and in the citizen. No hard-and-fast rule for the apportioning of taxes can be laid down. The decision must be made in each generation by the public opinion as to what is most expedient for the general welfare.
§ 13. Principles of administration. Whatever forms of taxes are adopted, whether on property or income, whether at proportional or at progressive rates, their justice and expediency depend largely on their administration. Principle and practice in this, as in most affairs, may go far apart. The administration of taxation should be economical, certain, and uniform. (1) Some laws are more easily and economically executed than others. The time of collection should be as convenient as possible for the citizen, and the mode of payment should be the most simple. (2) The utmost certainty is desirable as to the time, method of payment, and amount. Taxation that, in its principle, is variable, shifting, or dependent on personal whim and favoritism, is despotism. (3) But the greatest evils, in practice, result from failures in uniformity as between individuals. The assessment of taxes has to be intrusted to men with fallible judgment, imperfect knowledge, and selfish interests. The assessor is as near a despot as any agent of popular government to-day. Not infrequently men of proved incapacity in every private business they have attempted are, for partizan or corrupt reasons, selected as assessors, and are given the power of passing judgment on the value of millions of dollars’ worth of property. Under the circumstances, evils are to be expected, and they occur. The small owner often is crushed under the unequal assessment, while the large owner comes off lightly. Political friends are favored, political foes are made to suffer. Even the most honest and capable of assessors find in the imperfections of the tax laws4 an insuperable obstacle to even-handed justice.
§ 14. Shifting and incidence. The person paying a tax into the public treasury is not always the one whose income is reduced in the long run. This is most clearly seen in the case of taxes paid by middlemen. In most cases the final and regular burden of the tax is distributed over a number of incomes. The passing on of the burden is called the shifting of the tax; the final location of the burden is called the incidence of the tax. The lawmaker cannot tell exactly where the weight will fall. The principles of value give some guidance in the inquiry, but the workings of the principle are difficult to follow.
Consider a situation where certain taxes have been for some time levied. They have become a part of the general adjustment of prices. If paid by any one in business they may be looked upon as a deduction from the gross proceeds or product of the business, prior to cost, or as a part of cost.5 In either case, every one choosing that business does so in the light of this fact. Unless the business promises to yield as good incomes (wages, profits) as other lines, the number engaging in it, and the output, must diminish, and thus the price of the product rises, or the cost of the factor falls, or both in some proportion. The tax on any durative agent or on any established business thus becomes incorporated after a time in its price and in the prices of the products, and any purchaser pays a price based on the net income remaining to the owner of the wealth after the tax is paid. Viewed in this way, taxes are seen to be borne to some extent by every one, by those who do not as well as by those who do actually meet the tax-collector face to face. The citizen with no taxable property is affected, far more than he realizes, by extravagance of government and by inequities in taxation, for the effects of most taxes are diffused so that every self-sustaining member of the community has some share in them.
§ 15. Taxes as costs. Now, if a new tax is levied, or an old tax changed in amount or in its incidence, it becomes a new influence in industry. Some occupations are made more attractive, others less so. Some places are made more, others less, desirable to live in. Property thus fluctuates in value, and investments become more or less remunerative. If the new tax reduces the net income of any productive agent, it reduces likewise its value, which is but the capitalization of its net rental. If taxes are taken off factories and put upon farm rents, factories rise and farms fall in value in the hands of their owners. The immediate change in value is much greater than the annual tax, for if five dollars is to be taken permanently from the annual rental of the farm, nearly one hundred dollars is taken at once from its selling value when the prevailing yield on investment is 5 per cent. The rate of adjustment varies greatly under different conditions, and the inflow and the outflow of labor and capital are more or less rapid in the various industries.
Taxes that enterprisers are unable to shift to others are reckoned by them as a part of their costs of production whenever the conditions of competition and of substitution make it possible to do so. Every new tax that curtails the supply of any necessary agent must raise the price of the products and cause more or less of the tax to fall upon the consumers. In the Civil War an increase in the tax on whisky increased its selling price, and distillers who owned stocks on which a smaller tax had already been paid reaped profits of millions of dollars. When the tax on tea was increased in England, all dealers that had accumulated a stock before the law went into effect were gainers. Every change in taxation inevitably affects, either favorably or unfavorably, many interests. The chance to anticipate a change in tax laws, or to get, from those in power, information of a proposed change, makes speculation possible and political corruption profitable.
The fact that a change in taxation is a disturbing element in price is not to be deemed insignificant merely because “all comes out right in the end.” Every change in taxation is an element of uncertainty in business and increases the fortunes of some men at the expense of others. Hence no considerable change should be made without good reasons in its favor. The older taxes have the virtue of stability, but in many cases they have grown out of harmony with the industrial conditions. While, therefore, from time to time there is a real need of a reform in the tax system, it should not be undertaken without recognizing the many and complex interests involved.
§ 16. Taxation and socialism. Because of its effect on costs, the taxing power gives to the government a means of encouraging some and of discouraging other persons and industries. “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” is the notable dictum of the Supreme Court. At the same time it is the power to favor and to enrich the favored. So it is but to be expected that, under the guise of taxation, greedy men, mistaken reformers, sentimentalists, and true philanthropists should constantly attempt to upbuild or to destroy the chosen objects of their favor or of their antagonism. Taxation has been used, for example, to make impossible the issue of bank-notes by state banks, to discourage the use of whiskey and tobacco, to prohibit child labor, to decrease the use of oleomargarine, and to upbuild chosen industries. The purpose in such legislation is sometimes subtle, at other times frankly recognized. Rarely is it admitted, however, by those who use taxation as a means of interference with the ordinary course of business, that this is socialism in the correct sense of the term.6 Many active business men who generally oppose any interference with private business, and strongly denounce as socialism the use of legislation intended to favor the weaker industrial classes, nevertheless support a “protective” tariff. But a protective tariff is intended to make selected industries more profitable than they would be if left to the usual rule of supply and demand, and it compels men in other industries to cease exporting goods, and forces many others to pay higher prices than they otherwise would. That such use of the taxing power, either with selfish or unselfish purposes, will cease, is not to be expected; but it is well to recognize the truth nature of the case, and to watch carefully the results.
[1 ]These figures include the debts of the separate states in the federal unions of Australia and the German Empire, and the separate debts of European colonial governments, but not those of the states of the United States, and in no case including the debts of minor divisions the total figures of which are not to be had.
[2 ]As computed by the statistician of the National City Bank, from figures at various dates from 1916 to 1920, the total was $279,000,000,000.
[3 ]The figures do not include returns from incorporated places having a population less than 2500, where the poll taxes may be a considerable sum.
[4 ]Particularly the difficulties noted in the next chapter, §§ 2-5.
[5 ]See Vol. I, p. 374.
[6 ]See ch. 35.