The Washington Post reports that there is growing interest among politicians for a form of national sales tax known as the value‐added tax (VAT). But rather than use the VAT to replace the income tax, the politicians want a new source of revenue to expand the burden of government. The story explains:
With… President Obama pushing a trillion‐dollar‐plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money‐making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax. Common around the world, including in Europe, such a tax — called a value‐added tax, or VAT — has not been seriously considered in the United States. But advocates say few other options can generate the kind of money the nation will need… At a White House conference earlier this year on the government’s budget problems, a roomful of tax experts pleaded with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to consider a VAT. A recent flurry of books and papers on the subject is attracting genuine, if furtive, interest in Congress. And last month, after wrestling with the White House over the massive deficits projected under Obama’s policies, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee declared that a VAT should be part of the debate. “There is a growing awareness of the need for fundamental tax reform,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D‑N.D.) said in an interview. “I think a VAT and a high‐end income tax have got to be on the table.” …“While we do not want to rule any credible idea in or out as we discuss the way forward with Congress, the VAT tax, in particular, is popular with academics but highly controversial with policymakers,” said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for White House Budget Director Peter Orszag. Still, Orszag has hired a prominent VAT advocate to advise him on health care: Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and author of the 2008 book “Health Care, Guaranteed.” Meanwhile, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, chairman of a task force Obama assigned to study the tax system, has expressed at least tentative support for a VAT. “Everybody who understands our long‐term budget problems understands we’re going to need a new source of revenue, and a VAT is an obvious candidate,” said Leonard Burman, co‐director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, who testified on Capitol Hill this month about his own VAT plan.
Not surprisingly, the Washington Post did not bother to quote any free‐market people who oppose giving politicians a new source of money. For what it is worth, I wrote a piece for National Review in 2005 that explains why a VAT is a terrible idea. The core arguments are just as relevant today as they were then:
A VAT might have some theoretically attractive features, but it is a perniciously effective way of raising revenues and inevitably leads to bigger government. The best evidence comes from Europe. Back in the mid‐1960s, the burden of government in Europe wasn’t that much higher than it was in the United States. Tax revenues consumed about 30 percent of gross domestic product in Europe. The U.S. had a small advantage: The tax burden, including state and local governments, was about 27 percent of GDP. But then European governments started adopting the VAT. Denmark was the first to do so in 1967. France and Germany followed, with many other European nations imposing the tax within 5 years. For politicians, the VAT was great news. Besides being a new source of revenue, the VAT has been a disturbingly easy tax to increase since it’s built into the price of products and hidden from consumers. Moreover, even small increases generate a big pile of revenue because the tax base is so broad. The tax has become so easy to raise that VAT rates in Europe average more than 20 percent. For taxpayers, however, the news has been disastrous. Thanks to this levy, the burden of government in Europe today is much higher than it is in the U.S. On average, taxes consume about 41 percent of Europe’s economic output. While other taxes have also climbed, the VAT certainly has helped finance the explosion of social welfare spending that creates such a drag on European economies. In the U.S., by contrast, the total tax burden as a share of GDP is about where it was 40 years ago — 27 percent… Many European governments…claimed that more destructive taxes would be reduced or repealed once the VAT was implemented. In the short term, this was true: As late as 1975, taxes on income and profits were lower in the EU than they were in the U.S. But this was a transitory phenomenon. Income‐tax rates quickly began climbing and almost immediately jumped above U.S. levels. Ironically, the VAT facilitated higher tax rates on income since politicians often argued that a higher VAT had to be accompanied by higher income‐tax burdens to ensure the tax burden wasn’t being shifted to lower‐income taxpayers. There is only one scenario that would make a VAT acceptable. If U.S. lawmakers were willing to repeal the 16th Amendment and abolish all taxes on income, a VAT would be an acceptable risk. But until that happens, taxpayers should vigorously resist the Europeanization of America.