Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3.4.: Tax Limits and Tax Reform - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution)
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3.4.: Tax Limits and Tax Reform - James M. Buchanan, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution) 
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution, Foreword by Geoffrey Brennan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Foreword and coauthor note © 2000 Liberty Fund, Inc. © 1980 Cambridge University Press.
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Tax Limits and Tax Reform
We have argued that the bases for taxation, as well as the rate structure, will be constrained constitutionally by the person empowered to choose among tax arrangements who does not know his own position and who adopts a revenue-maximizing model for the behavior of government in postconstitutional periods. Our analysis provides support for the noncomprehensiveness of the allowable tax base. To the extent that activities which yield value to taxpayers remain outside the allowable reaches of the fiscal authority, the appetites of Leviathan are checked. Persons may resort to nontaxable options, and in the knowledge that they will do so, government necessarily curbs its revenue extraction.
The danger of allowing government access to revenue-raising instruments that generate budgets in excess of those necessary for financing some roughly efficient levels of public goods and services has been central to our model. We should, however, recognize that constitutional tax constraints might, through time, prove to be overly restrictive. In this case, postconstitutional pressures will surely arise for escape through constitutional-style adjustments designed to widen the bases and to allow for more flexible rate structures, to move generally from specificity to comprehensiveness. Empirically, it will always be difficult to distinguish between genuine constituency demands for a relaxation of such constraints and the ever-present demands of the revenue-seeking politicians-bureaucrats. For the latter group, and for their spokesmen, efforts will tend to be directed toward widening bases, toward increasing the number of sources upon which taxes may be imposed. “Tax-reform” advocacy on the part of the “bureaucratic establishment” will tend to be centered on “tax-base erosion.” Indeed, one indirect test of the empirical validity of our model of the political process lies in the observed lack of reformist concern about relative rates of tax within tax-law limits that currently exist.
In the discussion of proposed tax-base changes, the attitudes of the traditional normative tax theorist and the members of the taxpaying public differ more sharply than anywhere else. Our analysis is helpful in “explaining” the attitudes of the taxpayers. For example, they are likely to react negatively and emphatically to proposals to move toward taxation on the basis of full income, as, for example, by including the imputed rental values of owned residences in the base for personal income tax. The normative tax theorist, who advocates such inclusion from reasoning based on equi-yield comparisons, responds to taxpayers by arguing that overall rates of tax may be lowered simultaneously with the widening of the base. But the taxpayers may be implicitly, but correctly, rejecting the equal yield postulate, in their predictions that any widening of the tax base must open up further taxing possibilities for a revenue-seeking government.
Illustrations might easily be drawn from American fiscal experience. For example, in late 1979, a proposal was widely discussed aimed at the introduction of a broad-based value-added tax with offsetting reductions in payroll taxes and individual and corporate income taxes. If such a proposal is adopted, it may be predicted that, ultimately, the value-added tax would be used to generate revenues greatly in excess of the revenue reductions under other taxes. In fact, of course, almost any widely advocated tax change tends to be justified in terms of its greater “efficiency,” or its greater “fairness,” springing from the extension of the tax base. As our analysis indicated, if our perception of postconstitutional political process bears any relation to reality at all, it is precisely on such grounds that the change should be rejected.