Is there really appetite to tax the rich? Evidence suggests not

By Zac Tate, Hottinger Investment Management

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”

What US founding father Benjamin Franklin didn’t say (but perhaps knew) was that death and tax policy are deeply interlinked.

That’s the thesis from Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage, who have studied the history of taxation in Europe and the United States, in their book Taxing the Rich – A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe. They find that what we think drives high taxes on the rich – inequality, envy and the ability to pay – doesn’t really show up in the data. It wasn’t universal suffrage or the politics of left- and right-wing governments that drove large increases in claims on the rich in the 20th century, but the need for equal sacrifice in a time of war.

In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill wrote that taxes should be levied to ensure “equality of sacrifice”, but that left open the question of what form these taxes should take: should they be proportional or progressive? This is an unresolved moral issue at least half a millennium old. The introduction of the decima scalata, a progressive tax on land income, in Florence in the year 1500 created a vigorous debate that Francesco Guicciardini – statesman and friend of Machiavelli – summarised in a brief text. There one can find statements that match the sentiment we find across the political spectrum today. Depending on political persuasion, the ideal principle ranges from one that emphasises the ability to pay (progressive taxation, with richer folk paying more as a share of their resources) to one extolling the virtues of equal treatment (proportional taxation, with everyone paying the same share of resources in taxes), or one where everyone pays the same flat fee (regressive taxation).

But there is another way of looking at “equality of sacrifice” that has entertained recent studies in tax history, not least Thomas Piketty’s seminal work on inequality and capitalism in 2014. Following Piketty, Scheve and Stasavage conclude that the effect of two all-consuming and devastating world wars explains the very large increases in taxes on the rich in the 20th century, with those taxes gradually falling back in the following decades. The 1918 Labour Party manifesto called for a ‘Conscription of Wealth’ from the older members of the British population who made money from the war but were not enlisted to fight in the trenches. Equality of sacrifice here meant short-term confiscations from the wealthy in the form of income and wealth taxes, as well as levies on capital and excess profits, to finance the costs of the war and social reconstruction in the years that followed.

Scheve and Stasavage’s major insight is that the countries that mobilised for war – such as the UK, US and France – raised top income taxes on the rich by much more than those that didn’t. While rates were below 10% before the First World War in most industrial countries, they rose to an average of 40% by 1919 in the belligerent industrial states, compared to just 15% in those that stayed out of the war. In the UK, top taxes on income rose to 98% and on large estates to 80% in the period after WW2 in order to fund a growing welfare state that was seen as a reward for the sacrifice of those who went to fight.

Figure 1 shows the top rate of marginal tax on the highest incomes in each country. Rates spiked during the two World Wars before falling in the following decades.

As the impact of the wars subsided, so did the demands on the rich – yet the demand for public services has continued to grow. Average top rates of income tax fell from 65% in 1945 to below 40% in 2010 at the same time as the size of government doubled from 20% of GDP to 40%, funded by a broader tax base. What is surprising about this book is how robustly the authors discount other widely held explanations for the gradual reduction in tax paid by the richest 1% since 1980. The influence of political lobbying, liberalised capital flows and the breakdown of the post-war consensus are, in their view, inadequate answers. What has changed is the focus on ‘equality of sacrifice,’ which has returned to a debate about fairness, a concept under which both ‘equal treatment’ and ‘ability to pay’ can coexist and compete on normative terms. Fairness can be invoked to defend taxes that are high or low; flat or progressive.

Figure 2 shows tax revenue as a percentage of national income for France, the UK and the US. Together with Figure 1, it implies that the tax base broadened once top marginal rates fell in the 1970s and 1980s in order to fund growing government expenditure. After the wars, populations came to accept that the burden for funding the state should be borne more equally than it was immediately after WWII.

So in the light of the global financial crisis, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and the intensifying focus on the so-called 1%, what are the likely consequences for tax policy in the US and Europe?

Not much, say Scheve and Stasavage. In a 2014 study with YouGov, 2,000 US taxpayers were asked what they believed the marginal tax rate should be for different income levels. For those earning over $375,000, the median preferred rate was 30%, which is less than the 35% rate that is actually charged on incomes above $375,000 today. Even when respondents are informed of the scale of inequality in the US – which is significantly greater than many people imagine – their preferred rate of tax for top incomes does not change very much.

Despite the challenges thrown up over the last decade by the financial crisis, there is no clear evidence of a widespread impulse to bring down the rich. There is still an appreciation among many that wealth can be built by good work that improves society, and that sensible progressive taxation gets the balance right between ability to pay and equality for all under the law.

But that appreciation is not guaranteed to last. If there’s reassurance from this work that we’re unlikely to see the emergence of a politics of envy riding on the back of confiscatory taxes, there is a warning too that reinforces the urgency of reforming capitalism. We need to promote a popular, inclusive capitalism from which everyone can benefit; and a social contract that offers a level playing field, chances for individual fulfilment, social solidarity, and compassion for the less fortunate.

Public sentiment may change for the worse if the majority of taxpayers start to believe the economy is systematically rigged in favour of the rich in a way that is fuelling inequality. If electorates feel that too much of the burden of funding the state falls on low- and middle-income earners, especially in the form of indirect taxes, there could well be greater support for higher, compensatory levies on wealth and top incomes. If there is another banking crisis that calls on states to bail out failed actors, there would be calls for retribution. And if a perception grows that the rich not only benefit from favourable effective tax rates but also get special treatment by the state when it comes to building a successful career or business, or influencing political and social life, the public mood could easily sour during a future downturn.

The job for those who support the free enterprise system is to make sure that doesn’t happen.