Hillary Clinton has revealed further details of her plan for the fiscal future of the United States. Her vision addresses both sides of the equation: how and from whom taxes should be raised; and how and for whom they should be spent. Her plan is squarely within the progressive tradition. She insists that “The middle class needs a raise,” and that the federal government will pay for the raise by increasing taxes on the top one percent, who once again must be made to pay their “fair share.”
The notion of diminishing returns from higher taxes at no point informs the key features of the Clinton plan: a four percent income tax surcharge on those earning over $5,000,000 per year; the imposition of the “Buffett rule” that requires an alternative minimum tax of at least 30 percent on those earning more than a million dollars per year; an increased capital gains rate for investments held for less than six years; a hefty increase in the estate tax, by reducing its base to $3.5 million per person from the present $5.45 million per person; an increase in the top rate from 40 percent to 45 percent; and capping the charitable deduction at 28 percent, even for people in a higher individual tax bracket.
Clinton plans to funnel many of these tax dollars into an aggressive form of industrial policy that gives public officials under her guidance the power to decide which businesses in which locations—chiefly inner-cities and depressed neighborhoods—will move to the head of the queue. In addition, she wants to spend more on infrastructure, but has said very little about how to insulate essential improvements and repairs from political intrigue. Clinton’s fatal conceit is that she will be able to manipulate the political levers to give targeted benefits to her preferred constituents, without reducing overall levels of growth.
But her plan will crater. The selective government interventions that she proposes will perversely distort key private decisions on consumption and investment. In a hypothetical tax-free world, investment and consumption decisions are made by individuals seeking out the highest rate of return for their various efforts. At the same time, there is always the impulse for charitable behavior among those individuals—whether to help the poor or to provide educational, artistic, or medical benefits to the community. In general, a legal system that enforces contracts, curtails aggression, and restrains monopolies and cartels will have resources flow to their best use. Secure property rights and voluntary exchange are the foundations for any sound social policy. Within this framework, private actors can establish through repeated interactions the correct relative prices for the goods and services needed for both production and consumption.
Obviously, this ideal system of private property and voluntary exchange does not run on vapors. Someone has to enforce the rights and duties it creates, which requires the collection of tax revenues in order to discharge these key government functions. Ideally, that system of taxation should have two constraints, one distributional and the other aggregate. First, a sound system of taxation should not change the relative prices attached to various alternatives from what they were in a tax-free world. If A prefers X to Y in that hypothetical tax-free world, A should prefer X to Y in a world with taxation. Otherwise, the collective intervention will subsidize inefficient choices. Second, the aggregate levels of expenditure should be set to produce outcomes that give back to each citizen a package of goods and services worth more than the taxes he or she pays to create them. Over-taxation chokes off productive private labor.
There is no perfect way to reach these dual objectives. But in our imperfect world, classical liberal theory offers a good way forward. It favors flat taxes on a broad base of income, or more preferably consumption, to achieve these two ends. The flat tax reduces political discretion in determining who should be taxed, and since no one is exempt from its reach, it gives each person an incentive to search for a uniform tax rate that maximizes the net benefits from funding all public goods. That tax reduces the factional gains from forming political blocs, and it cuts down on the uncertainty that private parties face when making long-term investment decisions.
On the expenditure side, a similar degree of stabilization is achieved by funding public, i.e. nonexclusive, goods that are shared by all alike. This is why the original Constitution limited the objects of taxation to paying the public debt, providing for the common defense, and securing the general welfare of the United States—which excluded all transfer payments between private parties. By securing a stable framework, this system gives the poorest members of society greater opportunities to find gainful employment and other opportunities—at least if not blocked by entry restrictions, including minimum wage laws and strong unions. The challenge of redistribution, intended to redress inequalities in wealth, is not fully addressed by these devices. But charitable deductions create an implicit public subsidy in which a diverse set of private donors, not government officials, make the key policy and management decisions.
The Clinton program rests on an exaggerated sense of the good that government can do. But her plan will backfire in a number of ways. First, by raising the capital gains rate she reduces capital mobility and thus locks people into inferior investments. The higher rates will depress the collection of the capital gains tax, by encouraging people to delay unloading bad investments. Second, by imposing the higher taxation rates on the richest individuals, her program further tamps down on investments made by people whose investment and management skills can best create new jobs for ordinary people. She wrongly thinks that governments can expand opportunities, when its level of entrepreneurial expertise is negligible at best. Unfortunately, we can expect her program to fail just as other government programs have in everything from solar energy to neighborhood cooperatives. Government officials work best when they have focused goals of the type that define a system of limited government. Going further by managing private businesses exponentially increases the risk of cronyism and other forms of misbehavior.
Precisely that will happen, moreover, with her misguided proposal to eliminate capital gains taxation for money invested into depressed areas, which is likely to reproduce the colossal waste that came from overspending in places like Baltimore, where massive federal investment has done nothing to stop crime or the population exodus. The right strategy is the exact opposite: encourage people to move to safer and more prosperous communities, which might jolt the political and civic leaders of places like Baltimore to get off life support. Programs that reward failure only create more failure. No private party would spend its money on such a fruitless mission—and the federal government should not create a useless bureaucracy to decide which supplicants should receive what forms of aid. Nor should it give tax breaks that favor unproductive investments over sensible ones.
Today, ordinary workers are leaving their home states in search of jobs and a better standard of living. They are moving to places like Texas where taxes are lower and labor markets are freer. But these business-friendly environments—and the people living and working there—will suffer if Clinton’s plan to strengthen unions and raise minimum wages is implemented on a national scale.
Similarly, her proposal to cap charitable deductions at 28 percent operates as a tax not only on donors, but also on the individuals who receive these benefits in relatively efficient form. The net effect is to reduce the flow of private support for charitable activities, which will increase the scope of badly run public programs. It would be a national tragedy to reduce the amount of private sharing of wealth. It is not the case that only the rich get hurt by the limitation on charitable deductions. After all, if the wealthy stop making gifts, that improves their own financial position. The real harm, then, is to the recipients of charity, who will receive less. Virtually every charitable entity in the United States should be up in arms at this crude effort to tax them out of existence.
It is equally unwise to impose an alternative minimum tax. That program is only necessary in order to backstop our progressive system of taxation, which is riddled with loopholes. But rather than add complexity, we should simplify and rationalize our basic tax system in ways that make a back-up tax unnecessary. In this regard, taxing capital gains is often a mistake. Even if we do not move to a consumption tax, it makes sense to exempt from immediate taxation receipts that are reinvested in other capital assets.
By this standard, the estate tax is the worst of all possible taxes, because it is a lump sum tax on wealth that distorts decisions on investments and consumption. There is no equity in imposing this tax on those people who die at 60, while deferring the same tax for 30 years for those who die at 90, especially when they may have consumed or given away their wealth tax-free in the interim. The standard argument in favor of the consumption tax is that it reduces the excess tax on savings, in ways that improve intertemporal wealth management. Raising the tax and reducing the exemption will have negative effects on resource management that will reduce taxes that could otherwise be received on dividends and salaries. Yet nothing in the Clinton plan addresses the interplay between tax systems.
There is little doubt that the middle class has suffered from a regime of slow growth. But Clinton’s crude efforts to use new targeted tax revenues to fund industrial policy will only complicate the tax code while frustrating private activities that could grow the economy. A far better approach toward growth is to reduce the barriers to entry in industry after industry. The combination of lower administrative costs, higher legal certainty, and greater private initiative will work far better than any set of progressive gimmicks with their perverse incentives and heightened political intrigue.
*Considered one of the most influential thinkers in legal academia, Richard Epstein is known for his research and writings on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects.