The Nobel-Laureate Douglass North passed away at the end of November. Though he didn’t specialise in fiscal questions, his analysis of institutions in early modern Europe reveals that actual fiscal choices about how to finance an army help to determine the fortunes and falls of European powers. The lesson for today is clear – fiscal size may be important, but it is equally important to consider how it is raised.
Switzerland may be known for low taxes, but that does not prevent it from redistributing them; richer regions subsidise the poorer ones. Now at least one paying canton is starting to protest against the arrangement. There really is a big difference between how much taxpayers in different cantons pay for (or receive from) others. But somewhat surprisingly, there is hardly any “freeriding”: subsidised cantons do not use the subsidy to lower their own tax revenues. “Race to the bottom” that most EU politicians like to fear is therefore little to be feared.
The UK government has been watching Jamie Oliver’s TV shows and now wants to implement his plans for a new tax on sugar. The Commons‘ Health Committee has reported its overwhelming support for the idea at the end of November. Other than arguments that such taxes are “good per se“ because they will decrease obesity, most serious justifications invoke the idea that the tax would be a just way of raising extra money for the health service tasked with treating the consequences of obesity. Unfortunately, neither goal would likely be achieved through a sugar tax.
At the beginning of October, England became the last constituent part of the United Kingdom to introduce a compulsory charge for plastic shopping bags (to be paid by the shopper), after similar taxes had been introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in previous years. The relevant ministry insists that it is not a tax since “the money from the charge does not go to the government“.
We show that
A) it actually is a tax, in spite of government protestations,
B) its complexity is costly misdirected, and
C) instead of improving the environment, the tax may actually worsen it.
Strange behaviours are often caused by strange taxes or subsidies. The strange behaviour of Volkswagen believing it could cheat and not get found out was motivated partly by the strange tax/subsidy policies in Europe which subsidised diesel at the cost of petrol cars.
Two routes exist in theory towards making people behave more environmentally: through taxation, and through better defining and upholding of property rights. Empirical evidence suggests that at least in the EU, environmental taxation does not seem to work. Greater reliance on property rights should be the guiding principle during any environmental negotiations.
An essential component of a free society is independent press. It plays a central role in preventing both state actors and private interest groups from pursuing their own interests through state power too aggressively. Journalists independent from political and economic power work effectively through two main channels: detecting and uncovering actual offenses, and safeguarding against further offenses. Interestingly, free press does not have to be crowded out by state-run pseudo-tax paid channels.
The best way how rich countries can help the poorer ones has always been to teach them how to fish. Not giving them fish. And certainly not taking fish away from them.
Yet this is what the EU has been doing since the 1970s, and in September it has renewed three multi-year greatly underpriced leases of fishing grounds off Africa, to the detriment of poor African fishermen and for the benefit of rich European ones.
This is wrong and there are better alternatives.
“Fair tax(es)” is a beautiful idea everybody wants to subscribe to. Including, of course, modern EU politicians. Their idea of “fair tax”, however, differs very much from the way in which people understood the concept in the past.
It is no longer about making sure the tax is fair to the taxpayer. It is much more about making sure that the taxpayer pays “her fair share”, meaning “enough”.
This is a dangerous development.
It is good when foreigners buy agricultural land. Johnny Foreigner will have evidentnly paid more than anyone else, and he can bring access to better capital, technology, know-how or marketing channels. That’s what the single market is for.
Yet governments fear him and legalise against him – like the Slovak government recently (and many others). Some see it as a protection for domestic landowners, but in reality it is subsidies that rule European agriculture. They seep through to landowners, and Johnny likes that. Reduce them, and Johnny won’t be so eager to come.