Taxing the 1% III: The Avoidance Argument

As noted in previous essays on this topic, those with the highest income in the United States currently pay about 1/3 of their income in taxes. Some on the left have proposed increasing the tax rate to 40% or even 45%. For the most part, conservatives oppose these proposed tax increases. This essay will look at the avoidance argument against this increase.

The gist of this argument is that the tax increase is pointless because the rich will simply find ways to nullify the increase. They might use already established methods or develop new ones, but (the argument goes) they will manage to avoid paying the increase.

This argument does has a certain appeal—after all, there is little sense in engaging in actions that will have no effect. As such, it would seem reasonable to leave things as they are, since this change would do exactly that—only at the cost of enacting ineffective legislation.

Despite this appeal, there are two key factual issues that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of whether or not the rich would try to avoid the tax increase. Some of the wealthy have at least claimed to favor higher tax rates, so they might elect to accept the increase. However, most people (be they rich or not) generally prefer to not pay more taxes. There is also the fact that many of the rich already do all they can to minimize their tax burden. There is no reason to think that a tax increase would change this behavior. As such, it is reasonable to infer that most of the rich would try to minimize the impact of the tax increase.

The second factual issue is whether or not the rich would be able to nullify the tax increase. Or, if they cannot completely nullify it, the focus would be on determining the degree of nullification. One approach to this question is to consider that if the rich are concerned about the tax increase, then this indicates that it would affect them. After all, people generally do not worry about things they believe will not affect them.

A reasonable counter to this is that while the rich will be affected by the tax increase, their concern is not that they will be paying more taxes, but that avoiding the increase will cost them. For example, they might have to pay lawyers or accountants to enable them to neutralize the increase.  Or they might need to lobby or “donate” to politicians. Some even claim that the rich would be willing to expend considerable resources to mitigate the tax increase—if this expenditure would be lower than what paying the increase would cost them, then this approach could be rational. It could even be claimed that some might be willing to pay more to avoid the taxes than the taxes would cost them, perhaps as a matter of principle. While this sounds odd, it is not inconceivable.

Another approach is to consider how effectively the rich avoid existing taxes. Even if they are somewhat effective at doing so, the increase could still impact them and thus generate more tax revenue (which is the point of the tax increase). As such, an increase could be effective in regards to the stated goal of increasing revenue.

In addition to the factual issues, there is also the issue of whether or not the principle that underlies this argument is a good principle. The principle is that if people will be able to avoid a law (or policy), then the law should not be put in place.

As noted above, this principle does have a pragmatic appeal: it seems irrational to waste time and resources creating laws or policies that will simply be avoided. This sort of avoidance argument is also used against proposed bills aimed at gun control. Interestingly enough, many of those who use the avoidance argument in regards to gun control do not accept this same argument when it comes to attempts to limit abortion or to keep marijuana illegal. This is as should be expected: people tend to operate based on preferences rather than on consistent application of principles.

One possible response is that if a law is worth having, then steps should be taken to ensure that people cannot simply avoid it. If it was found that some people were able to get away with murder, then the morally right reaction would not be to simply give up on the law. The correct reaction would be to ensure that they could not get away with murder. Naturally, it can be argued that the tax increase would not be a law worth having—but that is a different argument distinct from the avoidance argument being addressed here.

A second possible response is to reject the consequentialist approach and take the approach that the fact that people will be able to avoid a law or policy is not as important as the issue of whether or not the law or policy is right. Some people take this approach to drug laws: they accept that the laws are ineffective, but contend that since drug use is immoral, it should remain illegal. As always, consistency is important in these matters: if the principle that moral concerns trump the pragmatic concerns is embraced, then that principle needs to be applied consistently in all relevantly similar cases. If the principle that the pragmatic should trump the moral is accepted, then that needs to be applied consistently to all relevantly similar cases. While the issue of whether such a tax increase is morally right or not is important, my concern here is with the avoidance argument. But, if the tax increase is not the right thing to do and the rich would just avoid it, then imposing it would be both wrong and a bad pragmatic choice.


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