Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Libertarian Taxation Theory

I would advocate the following hierarchy of taxes, ordered by their increasing undesirability.

User fees are of course the ideal form of financing any product or service. However, governments should generally avoid them, because if the optimal amount of a product or service can be financed by voluntary transactions, then the government should probably not be involved in providing that product or service in the first place. (This is called the Yellow Pages Test.) The government should only produce/regulate those goods and services that free markets either 1) overconsume, 2) underproduce, or 3) cannot produce efficiently. These three categories are well-defined in modern economics, and are called 1) natural resources, 2) public goods, and 3) natural monopolies. (For definitions and examples, see here.) The only general exception to the no-government-user-fees rule should be natural monopolies, because (unlike public goods and natural resources) their "excludability" makes it easy to charge by usage.

Taxes on negative externalities (e.g. pollution) are a critical function of government. One of the best ways to tax a negative externality like pollution is to hold regular auctions for limited-duration emissions credits. An indispensable paper on this idea is here.

Resource usage fees are the best way for government to prevent overconsumption of natural resources -- i.e., goods like fisheries, aquifers, spectrum, and orbits, for which consumption is rivalrous but not excludable. Again, an excellent way to set these fees is by periodic auctions.

Land-value taxes are considered by economics Nobel laureate Milton Friedman to be the least onerous kind of tax. They are the central differentiating idea of geolibertarianism. Our own Santa Clara University economics professor Fred Foldvary (a former LP congressional candidate) is one of the world's leading advocates of geolibertarianism.

A libertarian polity would probably not need any form of taxation beyond LVT, so the discussion below is relevant mainly for transitional tax policy on the way to Libertopia.

Consumption taxes have several nice properties compared to alternatives below. 1) They don't inhibit investment, which (along with technological advances) is the engine of increased living standards. 2) They are self-limiting, in that if the consumption tax rate gets too high, then consumers can just decrease consumption or take their transactions to the black market. 3) They allow for a bit of libertarian paternalism, which (despite libertarian dogma against "sin taxes") can perhaps be justified on the basis of bounded rationality. 4) They are hard to make progressive, but easy (through rebates) to make non-regressive.

Production taxes (e.g. a value-added tax) are very similar in effect to consumption taxes, and differ primarily in how they are administered.

Income taxes are dangerous because they are hard to evade and are very tempting to make progressive. Their primary relative virtue is that they are a transaction tax and not a wealth tax, so that a 99% income tax doesn't do as much redistribution as a 99% wealth tax.

Property taxes are onerous not only for their potential to redistribute wealth (as opposed to just income), but also because they create hardships for people (like retired homeowners) whose wealth is very illiquid. (Reverse mortgages do not yet have low enough transaction costs to address this issue.) Any advantages that property taxes might have in terms of Tiebout sorting are shared by Land Value Taxes, and so are not an argument for traditional property taxes.

Estate taxes are the closest thing America has seen to outright confiscatory communalism.

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