President Joe Biden has made so-called “fairness” a central facet of his tax proposals. This prompts the question: what is fair? We all have different definitions of the word.
It is dangerous, then, to desultorily apply opinions and envy in the progressives’ flawed attempt to solve perceived social injustices through the federal income tax code.
Because everyone drafting or revising the tax code views fairness differently, this approach to fiscal policy has helped turn the tax code into a complicated nightmare. The result is an amalgamation of confusion which no sane person could possibly examine and then diagnose as being “fair.”
The U.S. Tax Code is already extremely progressive with 58.4 million low- and mid-income taxpayers (39% of all filers) having no federal income tax liability in 2021. Meanwhile, the top 50% of taxpayers pay more than 97% of all individual income taxes while the top 1% of taxpayers earned 20.9% of total income yet paid 40.1% of all income taxes.
Biden wants to raise the top federal marginal income tax rate to 43.4% with the Obamacare surtax—and that is before any state and local income taxes are added. Is it fair to tax some income more than other income, and is it fair to take more than 40 cents of every dollar from some Americans when millions of others pay no income taxes?
Biden also wants to raise the corporate income tax rate to 28% so that the top combined tax rate would average 65.1% compared to current law of 47.3%. This would be only a few years after the Trump tax cuts brought the U.S. rate down to 21% which helped to make the U.S. more competitive with other countries. Confiscatory high rates actually raise less revenue than lower rates but, like President Obama, Biden wants higher tax rates because of fairness.
Is it fair to punish success? There is also this consideration: Corporate income is taxed twice—once at the corporate level and then again for the investor. Is it fair that some income is taxed twice instead of once?
Furthermore, corporations do not pay taxes—the corporate income tax is submitted to the government but we pay for it through higher prices, lower wages, and fewer job opportunities. Is it fair to make those people, many of whom earn a modest income well below the $400,000 max income that Biden promised he wouldn’t tax more, pay the corporate tax?
And what about taxing different types of personal income? Earned income is taxed at progressively higher rates but capital gains (like from the sale of stock) are taxed at a lower flat rate. This is done, in part, to account for this tax not being adjusted for inflation.
However, Biden wants to tax capital gains progressively higher, the way earned income is taxed, but he also wants very high rates. With his proposal, 14 states would have a top combined capital gains tax rate of at least 50% (New York City would be over 58%) with a nationwide average of 48%. After inflation, there may be no real investment gains left. Is that fair?
In some ways, we would be better off taxing consumption via a sales tax. That way, income used for savings and investment is not taxed until that that money is used for consumption. This would augment savings and investment which supports more capital accumulation, more productivity, higher wages, and more economic growth, providing gains across the income spectrum. Furthermore, low-income earners would pay a lower tax rate on earned lifetime income than high-income earners, so the tax would still be progressive.
Would it be fair to tax wealth instead, as with Biden’s proposed 61% wealth tax? It depends on what you think is fair.
Taxing wealth reduces savings and the capital stock, encouraging dissipation and wastefulness. It also reduces the ability to leave wealth for your descendants, reducing intergenerational savings, and further lessening the capital stock. That reduces wages in the long run, including those on the lower end of the income distribution, while incentivizing wealth to move to tax havens and away from productive allocations.
It turns out that taxation issues are more subtle and sophisticated than politicians lead us to believe—even before fairness is considered.
If the purpose of taxation is to finance the limited roles of government, then fairness becomes the most economically efficient way to collect that revenue.
But this is not Biden’s priority. The far left’s agenda is to implement a tax policy that confiscates wealth and punishes achievement using envy, one of the seven deadly sins, as the reason. In their quest to socially engineer society, those on the left value lofty rhetoric and utopian ideals more than the poverty-ridden outcomes of their policies.
If the point of taxation is not to fund limited government via the most efficient arrangement possible, then fairness becomes whatever the person in power wants it to mean—an appalling thought. Yet that thought explains the insanity in D.C.