My students spent a careful 8 weeks studying FA Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty. What follows is their summary of his Chapter 20, where Hayek reflects upon the justification for Progressive taxation. The book is dense and not extremely well written, so I suspect you will benefit from the summary. Enjoy, I am sure the ancient Athenians would be as dismissive as Hayek suggests popular audiences would be.
Hayek begins by stating that his views on progressive taxation are so extreme that he will offend almost everyone, because the redistribution that progressive taxation brings has been “almost universally accepted as just”. He confesses that the only valid argument for having one individual kind of tax be progressive is that it may compensate for the indirect taxes which disproportionately affect the poor more than the rich. All it takes for a tax to be redistributive is for its revenue be used to provide a service for a certain class. However, Hayek does wonder to what extent the lower class would like to give up portions of their available income in return for more “free” services.
As is Hayek’s fashion, he begins to discuss the history of the issue at hand. Marx himself advocated for a steeply progressive tax in order to put the means of production under state control. In contrast, Thiers believed that a progressive system would be arbitrary, while philosopher John Stuart Mill thought of it as “robbery”. Regardless, the push for progressive taxation strengthened with calls to “equalize the sacrifice” according to each person’s ability to pay the tax. Modern research on utility analysis completely nullifies any logical argument behind progressive taxation though, as utility of income is now expressed in terms of other goods, like leisure. This conclusion would actually lead one to advocate for regressive taxation rather than progressive taxation.
Original advocates of the progressive tax always stated that the range of percentages should remain small, and went as far as to call out those who believed rates would skyrocket for having no faith in democracy. Germany, in 1891, was the first nation to instate the progressive tax, at rates ranging from .67% to 4%. Its critics decried the policy as society’s abandonment of the formerly steadfast rule of equality of all before the law. The progressive tax advance in other countries, eventually making its way to the United States and the United Kingdom twenty years after Germany, installing the tax with top rates of around 7.5%. By 1940 these rates had ballooned into the 90% range. It took less than a generation for the world to go from claims that a progressive tax would never be excessive to reach such exorbitant rates. Society imposed this pattern of taxation based solely on politics, rather than any actual science.
While some claim that progressive taxes were necessary to satisfy the burden of higher government expenditures, but the simplest analysis finds that the taxes derived from those who make the incomes affected by the high rates were such a small proportion of the revenue that it did not affect the burden of the other classes. Additionally, rather than helping the poorest of the poor, the redistribution scheme actually benefitted the working class and the lower section of the middle class (also known as, the group with the most voters). The only result this policy has created is one in which the envious working class sees a drastic limitation of the incomes of the most successful members of society. It is probable that the gain to revenue is less than the reduction in real income caused by progressive taxation. Rather than its intended effect, regardless of the critiques of its intentions, progressive taxes historically have raised the income of the lower class, financed by the middle class, not the upper class.
Hayek writes that the rejection of proportional taxes has merely been discrimination against the wealthy. It is not to say that democratic or representative government is a failure or to be distrusted, but that a collective majority is unlikely to have long-term effects in mind when making decisions, increasing the need for guidance by principles. On this issue of tyranny of the majority, Hayek says, “That a majority, merely because it is a majority, should be entitled to apply to a minority a rule which does not apply to itself is an infringement of a principle much more fundamental than democracy itself, a principle on which the justification of democracy rests”. In no sense can a tax that charges a certain percent to one’s income and a different percent to another’s income be called equal.
Since progressive taxes alters the relationship between resources and the net reward for services, it disrupts the most “universally recognized principle of economic justice, that of ‘equal pay for equal work’”. If two people hold the same occupation, yet one works much harder than the others, the harder working man will earn more than his colleague. However, under progressive taxation, it becomes less worthwhile for the harder working man to provide his in demand services more than he already does. Perhaps worse so than the effect of diminishing incentive to work, the progressive tax also discourages taking precarious capital investments since the vast rewards of such an investment would be greatly reduced by the progressive strain on success. The socialist idea that savings should not be individual, but rather realize through the means of the community, would work only if one desired the government to control all production.
Hayek cites society’s favorable opinion on the idea of “appropriate income” another reason why the progressive tax is broadly approved. He writes, “a society which will recognize no reward other than what appears to its majority as an appropriate income…can in the long run preserve a system of private enterprise”. Moreover, a system of progressive taxation favors corporations over challenging newcomers and individuals. It prevents the individual from accumulating capital with his profits, thus losing the realistic opportunity to expand his business to challenge the corporations. Yes, corporations too are unable to accumulate capital, but once they are on top they need only the tax system to protect them and need not adhere to public demand as much as they would otherwise. Finally, the worst unintended consequence of this policy that attempts to reduce inequality is that it instead perpetuates the inequalities that already exist by making it extremely difficult for a successful man to acquire large resources in a short amount of time.
Hayek mentions the worst form of a progressive tax, that in which a narrowly defined upper limit is set on one’s income, and how in poor countries this would inhibit growth by not allowing one to reach an income level that in more advanced countries would only seem moderate to society. His ethical argument of a majority imposing its will on a minority and unequal treatment through services is restated. He writes, “If a reasonable system of taxation is to be achieved, people must recognize as a principle that the majority which determines what the total amount of taxation should be must also bear it at the maximum rate”. Setting an upper limit on the progression of taxes would be too arbitrary to be effective, rather, a principle that limits the rate of direct taxation to total burden of taxation is better. The most reasonable way to do so would be to link the percentage of national income that the government intends to collect as taxes and declare that same percentage the maximum marginal rate of direct taxation.