Taxes and Prosperity Lost

by | Apr 13, 2009

Ask the average person which is the correct answer to the following question: Which president gave the biggest tax cuts for the rich — Reagan or Bush? I would bet the rent money that you would not get the correct response, which is: Presidents have no taxing authority. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. […]

Ask the average person which is the correct answer to the following question: Which president gave the biggest tax cuts for the rich — Reagan or Bush?

I would bet the rent money that you would not get the correct response, which is: Presidents have no taxing authority. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises.” I know that many politicians and news media people read my column. How do we characterize them if they continue to speak of presidents cutting or raising taxes?

Another tax question: If there’s an imposition of a property tax on your land, who pays the tax? I guarantee you that land does not pay taxes; only people pay taxes. That means a tax on your land is a tax on you. You say, “Williams, that’s pretty elementary, isn’t it?” But what do you say to a politician or news media people who propose increasing corporate taxes as means to get rich corporations to pay their rightful share of government? They should be told that they speak nonsense because corporations, like land, do not pay taxes; only people pay taxes.

If a tax is levied on a corporation, and if it is to survive, it must raise the price of its product, or lower dividends or lay off workers. In each case, it is people, not some legal fiction called a corporation, who bear the burden of any tax levied on the corporation. An important subject area in economics called tax incidence says that the entity upon whom a tax is levied does not necessarily bear the burden of the tax. Some of the tax burden can be shifted to another party. That’s precisely what corporations do and as such they are merely government tax collectors.

Here’s another tax question: Which worker receives the higher pay: a worker on a road construction project moving dirt with a shovel or a worker moving dirt atop a giant earthmover? If you said the guy on the earthmover, go to the head of the class. But why? It’s not because he’s unionized or that employers just love earthmover operators. It’s because having more capital (tools) makes him more productive and therefore earn higher wages.

It’s not rocket science to conclude that whatever lowers the cost of capital formation enables workers to have more capital to work with and enjoy higher wages. Policies that raise the cost of capital formation such as capital gains taxes, low depreciation allowances and high corporate income taxes, and thereby reducing capital formation, serves neither the interests of workers, investors nor consumers.

Taxes also reduce transactions. I need my computer repaired. You and I agree that the job is worth $200. Suppose there’s the imposition of a 30 percent income tax on you. That means you would net only $140 and might refuse the job. You might suggest that if I were willing to pay you $285 you would do the job because at that price your after-tax earnings will be $200 — what doing the job is worth to you. There’s a problem. The repair job was worth $200 to me, not $285. So it’s my turn to say the heck with it, or would we and society be better off if you and I agreed to the repair job but did not tell anybody? I’d say yes, but we’d be criminals.

You might wonder how congressmen can get away with taxes and other measures that reduce our prosperity potential. Part of the answer is the anti-business climate promoted in academia and the news media. The more important reason is that prosperity foregone is invisible. In other words, we can never tell how much richer we would have been without today’s level of congressional interference in our lives and therefore don’t fight it as much as we should.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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