In the UK the press and commentariat have been in a huff about Labour’s proposal to levy income tax at 50% on incomes above £150,000. This is supposedly “anti-business” and “sends the wrong signal”, despite the fact that the top rate was higher under Thatcher. Much noise also about the danger that “wealth creators” (whoever they are) may leave and go off to other jurisdictions, concern unaffected by the fact that lots of other countries tax those on high incomes at a steeper rate. All of this is to be expected of course, as is the fact that journalists, who, when spouting right-wing guff, claim to be “reflecting” the views of their readers, continue to spout it when those readers disagree, as in this case.
However, the feature of the discussion I want to write about is the assumption, generally taken as decisive by the commentariat, TV interviews and the like, that if such a tax would raise little or no money then that should count against it decisively. On this view taxes are an unfortunate necessity, required to finance state expenditure and to be minimized whereever possible: a tax that raises no money is therefore pointless, imposing needless pain for no benefit.
But this view is just plain wrong, for several reasons. First, in a complex society structured by all kinds of institutional rules, the idea that people have full liberal property rights in their pre-tax income is unwarranted. They participate in a co-operative venture with others in society subject to certain conditions, and those conditions include one that part of “their income” already belongs to the wider society, via the state. This point, hated by libertarians, defeats the widespread view that people are having “their money” take off them: it wasn’t theirs to start with. Though I think such an argument, with some caveats, is correct, it is a second and third consideration that I’d want to rely on here.
The second consideration is that inequality is deadly for democracy, and for the equal political status of citizens. Because the power and influence high earners derive from their income threatens such status equality, there is a strong public interest in constraining it, even if doing so raises no money at all. It isn’t just that the rich come to own media outlets or that politicians are swayed by their donations to parties, it is also that the prominence their cash gives them gets them listened to and taken seriously by opinion formers. Their experience matters and shapes public policy, that of an unemployed teenager in the North East doesn’t: we need to shift the balance of voice in favour of the unemployed teenager and against the City trader.
Third, income inequality makes life worse for the rest of us in real terms. Economists are supposed to believe that utility (whatever that is) matters intrinsically and money only matters instrumentally. But right-wing economists often seem to forget this as soon as they are asked to comment on tax policy and inequality, arguing as if their theorems apply to cash and not to utility. If we’re dealing in cash terms, then a tax that makes some people worse off and nobody better off looks bad, and looks Pareto inferior. But it isn’t necessarily Pareto inferior if we focus on well-being: making some cash poorer may make some others better off, a Pareto incomparable outcome. Here’s one way how: if those on high incomes have too much, they can outbid the rest of us for goods that are intrinsically in limited supply or where supply can’t be quickly increased. If I’m further away from being able to buy a house near to where I work, because house prices are raised in an auction I can’t compete in, then I’m worse off even if my income stays flat. Reducing the purchasing power of the wealthy is therefore good for me (unless I got hold of a house early and can earn windfall gains from the auction). And similarly for many other goods. Unrestrained income for the wealthy also means that they can commit more of their resources to ensuring that their offspring make it to the top in the next generation, thereby harming the opportunities for the rest of society.
I could go on and enumerate more mechanisms whereby squeezing high earners is good, even if it raises no money, but the general point should be clear. It should give Labour reasons to go on the offensive (“class war”); it certainly gives the commentariat reason to stop making their stupid talking point. They won’t, of course.
[Update: the originally posted text mis-stated the threshold, now fixed]