More Arguments against a Value-Added Tax

The biggest long-term threat to fiscal responsibility is a value-added tax, as I’ve explained here, here, here, here, and here. So I’m delighted to see a growing amount of research showing that a VAT is bad news. Jim Powell has an excellent column at Investor’s Business Daily that makes a rather obvious point about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of copying the tax policy of nations that are teetering on the edge of fiscal collapse (this cartoon has the same message in a more amusing fashion).

Drums are beating in Washington for a value-added tax in addition to the “stimulus” taxes, health care taxes, energy taxes and other taxes President Obama has imposed and wants to impose on hard-pressed taxpayers. Supposedly a value-added tax is a magic elixir for curing budget deficits and excessive debt. Quack remedy would be more like it. If it worked, you’d observe that countries with a VAT had budget surpluses and no debt problems. But almost every country that has a VAT is plagued with budget deficits and excessive debt. … No surprise that the worst financial basket cases all have a VAT. Iceland has the highest VAT rates, but this didn’t prevent its financial crisis and the near bankruptcy of its government. Italy’s VAT rates are almost as high, and its debt exceeds its GDP. Financial crises are looming in Spain and Portugal, and of course they have a VAT. Greece has a VAT, too, and when politicians ran out of money to pay government employees for more than a year’s worth of work every year, they rioted in the streets.  Great Britain has a VAT, and its government finances are in the worst shape since World War II — its budget deficit is expected to be bigger than that of Greece. Moreover, the OECD has acknowledged that “(VAT) tax and transfer wedges have discouraged firms from offering employment and individuals from taking it, reduced employment and increased inequality.”

And a new study by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Cameron Smith finds evidence that a VAT would lead to bigger government.

VATs provide a significant amount of revenue. …But do these significant revenues cause government spending to grow larger? Or is it the case that adoption of a VAT is evidence of the desire for a larger government so that the causal arrow runs from a taste for Leviathan to a VAT, and not the reverse? …we find a statistically significant dynamic relationship between the rate of VAT taxation and the size of government. Although no single study is definitive, this is the first rigorous evidence that a VAT causes government to grow larger. …countries that adopted a VAT did in fact experience, on average, a 29 percent increase in the size of government. …The estimated coefficient of 0.262 indicates that adopting a VAT is associated with larger government. This estimate is statistically significant. …our results shift the burden of proof to those who deny that VATs fuel increases in the size of the public sector.

This study jumps into a long-running chicken-or-egg debate in the academic literature about whether higher taxes lead to higher spending or whether higher spending leads to higher taxes. This causality debate is interesting, but I’m not sure it really matters. A VAT is a terrible idea if it triggers bigger government, and a VAT is a bad idea if it merely finances bigger government. But I suspect this study is correct. The key thing to remember is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.” This means that a VAT will allow more government spending and no reduction in deficits and debt, which is exactly what we see in Europe (and as Jim Powell noted in his column). Last but not least, this video summarizes the best arguments against a VAT.