- The science war Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem
- On wider access to culture Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Spaceship Earth explores Culture Space Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- The liberal dream is freedom plus groceries (and that’s okay) Brad DeLong, Grasping Reality
- The return of Henry George Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
- The politics of purity and indigenous rights Grant Havers, Law & Liberty
- The Ottoman Empire’s first map of the United States Nick Danforth, the Vault
- The age that women have babies: how a gap divides America Bui & Miller, the Upshot
Recently President Trump enacted a series of executive orders with the aim of extending religious liberty. This has gotten me to think about churches and tax policy. Just to be clear, in this post I will not discuss the details of Trump’s orders. I care about the broad concept here.
Churches in the United States are exempt from certain taxes due to their classification as charities. I have often been in favor of this designation. Taxes can easily serve as a way for the state to discriminate against groups subtly. I could easily imagine a tax that targets churches with kneeling pews (e.g. Catholic churches) and therefore disadvantages them relative to denominations that have less kneeling involved. I could also imagine a system, similar to some European countries, where the state collects the tithe on behalf of the church. This arrangement would favor larger, state recognized, churches at the expense of smaller start up denominations. In both cases taxes can be used by the state to effectively discriminate between churches.
Some time ago though it was pointed out to me that NOT taxing churches could also lead to discrimination against them. Take the case of property taxes. When urban planners draw up zones (residential, commercial, mixed use etc.) they effectively have the power to exclude churches from certain neighbors. Even without official census data it is not difficult to notice where certain religions sort within the city, and so a zealous planner could easily discriminate by denomination. When church property IS taxed there is a strong disincentive against this type of discrimination because it reduces potential city revenues. Even if a given planner may be willing to discriminate nonetheless, he would find himself fired by his tax-obsessed superiors. When church property ISN’T taxed this incentive is reversed. Since church property can’t be taxed cities lose out on potential tax revenue when they zone an area for a church over taxable property. A devout religious urban planner may easily be pressured to minimize the number of churches to maximize tax revenues. I suspect a Catholic urban planner would prefer to reduce the number of Protestant churches, so this is a scenario where minority denominations could easily find themselves zoned out of existence.
The current concern about whether churches should be allowed to be engaged in politics would be moot if they were taxed. The legal reason churches are limited in their political speech is that they are classified as charities. Certain crowds would be angry about allowing churches being involved in politics* anyway, but I suspect many politicians would be fine to look the other way in exchange for the increased tax revenues.
How can we balance the pros of taxing churched (helping them avoid being discriminated by zoning and gaining political speech) versus the cons (discrimination by taxation)? I think the answer is a georgist tax on land. It achieves the goal of taxing churches without discriminating against any given denomination.
*For the record I personally oppose my church, the Catholic Church, from getting involved in politics. I am fine with the priest lecturing against the evils of abortion, but I don’t want to hear his thoughts on the optimal income tax rate.
The inequality of wealth and income has become a meme loaded with danger. A “meme” is an idea that gets propagated like genes in biology. Economic inequality has long been a topic of interest, but during the past few years, and especially during the 2015-2016 American elections, the inequality meme has erupted into a major political issue among those who identify as progressive, liberal, and socialist.
The facts about inequality in the USA are clear. Since 1970, income inequality has increased. As national income has grown, most of the gains have gone to the rich. Average incomes have even dropped since the recession of 2007-2009.
During the 1800s, the first economist to analyze equality and inequality was Henry George. Karl Marx had touched on economic inequality by saying that the surplus from production was due to labor but was captured by the capitalist, the owner of the firm and its tools. Thus, the proletariat, the workers, stay poor and the capitalists get rich, creating inequality. But Marx and his followers focused on the conflict between labor and capital rather than the inequality.
Henry George pointed out that the surplus from production is not in wages, nor in business profits, but in land rent, which is a pure surplus, since land has no cost of production. George showed how land rent captures the gains from economic progress, creating the inequality in wealth and income between workers and the landowners. Competitive firms make normal profits, which has no surplus. Of course monopolies can capture surplus also, but the profits from entrepreneurship are a bonus to society, rather than a social problem, as entrepreneurs drive innovation and economic progress.
Unfortunately, when the classical economics of the 1800s turned into the neoclassical doctrines of the 1900s, both by design (in opposition to the Georgist remedy of taxing land value) and for mathematical convenience, land was dropped as an input factor, and mainstream economics became the two-factor production function Q=f(K,L). It is illogical that land rent gets included in the distribution of income in the return on K, but excluded on the production side, as the models are based only on the two inputs, labor L and capital goods K. This contradiction is not questioned by graduate students in economics, who are too busy learning the calculus of “math econ” to bother asking if the whole system makes sense.
Therefore the inequality meme is now blended with the labor-capital meme, ignoring the real source of economic inequality, unequal land tenure. Politicians exploit the all-too-real economic inequality with a superficial, simplistic, and dangerous remedy: tax the rich and transfer the funds to the poor. Of course governments are doing that already, and that has not reduced inequality, but the welfare-statists insist that government should do more of it.
Conservative opponents of greater redistribution point out, correctly, that higher taxes and takings from the rich will stifle entrepreneurship and savings, reducing the economic growth. But other than eliminating some of the tax deductions and generating more growth by reducing the top tax rates, the conservatives have no effective remedy. Their call to flatten the tax rates play into the political agenda of the redistributionists who call for higher, not lower, tax rates on the rich.
The danger in the inequality meme is the confiscation of the wealth not just of the rich but also of the middle class. A family that spent all its income and now has no wealth would be given welfare aid, while the family with the same income but frugally saved its income for retirement or to provide for their children would have their wealth taken away, not just by ordinary and predictable taxation, but by a sudden taking, as happened in Cyprus in 2013. Government chiefs facing a debt crisis can kill two birds with one stone: confiscate savings and use some of it to pay off debt and the rest to transfer to the poor. Such confiscation has been suggested by the International Monetary Fund, which lends funds to countries bogged down in debt. In its publication Fiscal Monitor Report, the IMF stated (pdf):
The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).” There we have the proposition that such confiscation of wealth can be “fair” (49).
This IMF capital-levy proposition was presented in Forbes with the title, “The International Monetary Fund Lays The Groundwork For Global Wealth Confiscation.” The Wikipedia article on “capital levy” shows that this meme is getting some traction, such as by Germany’s Bundesbank. The concept of a capital levy, confiscation of savings and investment, comes from the meme of economic inequality that looks only at the superficial existence of unequal wealth and not to the source.
It has been well pointed out by British journalist and economist Fred Harrison in his Youtube video “Ricardo’s Law: the Great Tax Clawback Scam” that while the rich pay much in taxes, many of them get the tax back, as a clawback, from government’s public goods, which generate higher rent and land value.
The effective and equitable remedy for economic inequality is not redistribution but the proper initial distribution of income. Wages and capital yields should be kept by the workers and investors, while land rent should be equally distributed either as cash or in public services. Public revenue from land rent would equalize income while promoting growth and raising wages. We need to bring land back into economic discourse, but that requires penetrating the appeal of superficial thinking. That’s what Henry George tried to do, and the Georgist meme had reached up to the heads of state in China, Great Britain, and Russia (after the first revolution with Kerensky), but World War I blasted the impending tax reforms to bits.
The candidates who now rant against inequality, the corporations, and the billionaires, even if they don’t win the election, will influence policy and generate calls for more redistribution and, perhaps in the next financial crisis, a capital levy. While alarmists often exploit impending doom for their own gains, sometimes they are right.
This article is also in progress.org under the title “Tyrants Exploit Income Inequality”
[Ed. note: I added tags, categories, and links, and patched up some grammar – BC]
Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?
Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.
In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.
But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.
People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.
If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.
When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.
The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.
The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.
We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.
Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.
The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.
The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”
There are many people who blame “capitalism” for the world’s economic problems, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and environmental destruction. This common belief is based on a confusion of meaning, and a lack of analysis. It is neither surprising nor noteworthy that many people fail to apply consecutive thought to economic issues, but it is sad that the Dalai Lama, as an influential religious leader, has not fully applied his compassionate thought to examine the causes and effective remedies of social problems.
The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has identified himself as a Marxist socialist. He blames “capitalism” for economic inequality, and sees the Marxist alternative as the alternative that would increase equality. He advocates a more “human approach,” which implies less “capitalism” and more socialism. The Dalai Lama adds that he is not a Leninist, meaning that his Marxist views do not imply a desire for a totalitarian state.
The Dalai Lama believes that Marxism is founded on moral principles, such as economic equality, while “capitalism” is founded only on the pursuit of profit. His social and economic views were published in the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses. He said there that Marxism is concerned with the poor and with exploited minorities. Therefore, he said, “I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” The Dalai Lama had studied Marxist ideology in China during the 1950s, and became attracted to it.
The essential problem with the word “capitalism” is that it is used both as a label for current economies, which are a mixture of markets and governmental interventions, and for the concept of private enterprise and free markets. Its use as a label for mixed economies makes it meaningless to blame “capitalism” for economic problems.
This confusion is similar to blaming diets for ill health. The diet of most people is a mixture of healthy foods such as vegetables and unhealthy stuff such as excessive sugar. The proposition that “diets” cause illness may be true, but it tells us nothing about which elements of our diets are causing the problem.
Likewise, to blame “capitalism,” meaning the mixed economy, for economic inequality, is meaningless, as this does not tell us which elements of the economy are causing the problem, whether it is markets or interventions. Blaming “capitalism” is worse than useless; it fogs the mind, because the label for mixed economies gets confused with the other meaning, private enterprise, so that, in a sly tacit shift of meanings, markets get blamed for economic woes.
It is meaningless to accuse “capitalism,” as a label, as only caring about profit and ignoring the poor, because the actual “mixed economy” cannot have any thoughts or feelings. Moreover, the concept of a pure market economy does have an ethical basis. The pure market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary. The concept of voluntary human action implies the existence of a universal ethic, or natural moral law, that designates acts as good, evil, or neutral, with voluntary action being good or neutral, and involuntary action consisting in coercive harm, which is evil.
One of the premises from which natural moral law is derived is the concept of human equality, that human beings have an equal moral worth, and should therefore be equal in the application of law. Human equality does not imply that all persons should have an equal income or wealth, because moral equality implies an equal self-ownership (or ownership of one’s body) of all persons. Therefore, each person properly owns his wage and the goods and investments bought from his wage. Income, however unequal, that comes from labor, including entrepreneurship, is not an evil outcome.
The mixed economy does create poverty, but not from private entrepreneurship. The poverty comes from government’s taxing the poor and subsidizing the rich. A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Pew Research Center recently concluded that the poorest fifth of households pay more than twice the state and local tax rate (11 percent) as the richest one percent. Also, although the rich pay a much higher tax rate on their income, many of the rich get their money back implicitly in the form of the higher rent and land value generated by government spending, paid for by taxes on wages, goods, and enterprise profits. The taxes on the poor are even higher than that found in the study, as there are federal excise taxes included in goods, and also, federal taxes and restrictions on labor and self-employment add to the interventionist burden of the poor.
The economist Henry George wrote that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty and excessive inequality are caused by human institutions. If Marxism implies income redistribution or government ownership of industry, this treats, and mistreats, the symptoms, not the causes. The main causes are the stifling of labor and enterprise from taxation and imposed barriers. The ultimate remedy is a completely free market, with voluntary, contractual, decentralized governance. Given today’s states and taxes, government interventions can be minimized with a constitutional prohibition of restrictions and imposed costs on peaceful and honest enterprise, thus with taxes only on bad effects – pollution – and on the ground rent generated by government’s public goods.
If he understood the ethics and economics of liberty, then the Dalai Lama would become a much greater global leader in promoting effective reforms that would not only promote liberty but also greater prosperity and social peace.