One of the big ones. Tax.
Taxes are one of the most tangible links between the government and civil society. We all pay taxes in some form, and in exchange we expect the government to provide certain goods and services: roads, infrastructure, the courts, law enforcement, education, and support for society’s most vulnerable.
From this perspective, the oft-quoted declaration ‘taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society’, widely attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, rings true.
However, it is a common misconception that a dollar taxed is a dollar that can be spent by government on goods and services. In reality, a dollar taxed is a dollar that must be spent on collecting tax, ensuring tax compliance, public administration of policy and, of course, the actual public policy.
Besides, increases in tax rates do not automatically lead to an increase in tax revenue, as illustrated by the Laffer curve. Named after Arthur Laffer, this curve popularised the notion that higher tax rates may actually cause the tax base to shrink so much that tax revenues will decline. Conversely, a cut in tax rates may increase the tax base so much that tax revenues increase.
Taxes distort behaviour by influencing the personal decisions people make about their work and consumption. For instance, people who would prefer to work longer hours or at a higher pay may work less or refuse a pay rise to avoid being taxed at a higher rate. Higher personal income taxes encourage workers to substitute their preference for work to economic activities that they would otherwise not prefer.
This is known as the deadweight loss of taxation, where the tax system causes individuals to pursue actions they would otherwise not prefer. To gain maximum tax revenue, there must be a careful balance between low rates with a greater tax base, and high rates with a smaller tax base.
There is also the issue of tax incidence, which describes who bears the cost of the tax. For example, increasing the tax on high income earners may not necessarily mean that they bear the cost of the tax. If workers are receiving less money in their pocket, for an equal or greater amount of work, employers may feel compelled to raise their wages to ensure employees receive the same take-home pay. Thus it is employers who bear the burden of a higher rate of income tax.
Taxes are not the price we pay for a civilised society. At best they are the price we pay for a civilised government. But they are also the price of overly bureaucratic procedures, unpredictable outcomes, and the loss of freedom to make our own decisions.