Economics on Trial
Ideas on Liberty
Having Their Cake
by Mark Skousen
“The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion.” -JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES (1)
In his 1920 bestseller, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes made a profound observation about the success of capitalism before the Great War. He lauded “the immense accumulations of fixed capital” built up by the “new rich” during the half century before the war and compared the huge capital investment of this golden era to a “cake,” noting how “vital” it was that the cake “never be consumed;” but continue to “grow.”
Keynes was intensely optimistic about the prospects of humanity, “if only the cake were not cut but was allowed to grow in the geometrical proportion predicted by Malthus for population.” Rapid capital accumulation would result in the elimination of “overwork, overcrowding, and underfeeding,” and workingmen “could proceed to the nobler exercises of their faculties.”
Alas, it was not to be. The First World War destroyed Keynes’s dream of universal progress. The cake was consumed. “The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many.” (2)
War isn’t the only enemy of capital accumulation. Since World War II, the greatest threat to capital formation (the growth of the cake) has been the direct and indirect taxation of capital.
Take, for example, the federal estate tax. The estate tax is often viewed as an “inheritance” tax and even a “death” tax. But it’s much worse than that. It’s also a tax on capital. An estate’s taxable property includes stocks, bonds, business assets, real estate, coins and collectibles-all after-tax, afterconsumption investments.
If your net worth exceeds $675,000, your heirs will be forced to pay at least 18 percent to the IRS. The tax rate hits a confiscatory 55 percent at a mere taxable estate of $3 million.
Capital is the lifeblood of the economy. Capital investment finances new technology, new production processes, quality improvements, jobs, and economic growth in general. When those investment funds are taxed-$28 billion in 1998-the funds are removed from the investment pool and transferred to Washington, where they are consumed. For the most part the funds are consumed through government expenditures and “transfer payments” (welfare, salaries of government workers, and so on).
The estate tax also creates economic distortions. It encourages individuals to engage in “estate planning,” expensive legal exercises to avoid the death tax. It forces individuals to buy insurance policies they would not otherwise buy and create tax-exempt trusts and foundations that they would not ordinarily create. Undoubtedly, millions of fiends are transferred every year into foundations and charities just to avoid estate taxes. Charitable giving and public foundations have become big business, but what is the price? Mismanagement and waste are common features in these nonbusiness organizations.
Another Inefficient Tax: Capital Gains Taxes
Perhaps an even more sinister tax is the capital gains tax. If you sell an asset (stock, bond, commodity, real estate, or collectible), the profits are taxed between 20 and 40 percent, depending on how long you held the asset. (If you hold for more than a year, the maximum rate is 20 percent.) This is a terrible penalty on capital. It means that every time a stock or other asset is traded outside a taxexempt vehicle, 20 to 40 percent of the profits are removed from the private economy and sent to Washington, never to be invested again. With the recent bull market on Wall Street, annual capital gains taxes have exceeded $100 billion. What a terrible drain on the economy.
Capital gains taxes also result in economic inefficiency. Because of the high tax on capital gains, many investors refuse to sell their assets. They may prefer to switch into a potentially more profitable investment, but they stay with their original investment because they hate the idea of paying Uncle Sam. Clearly, capital would be more efficiently allocated to its more productive use without this burdensome profits tax.
The United States can learn a lot from foreign nations. Hong Kong has a flat 15 percent personal income tax, a 16.5 percent corporate income tax, and no tax at all on capital gains. In fact, most of the New Industrial Countries in Southeast Asia do not tax capital gains.
Thus capital can move freely throughout Hong Kong and around the world without distortion. And the cake has grown rapidly because of capital’s tax-free status. Hong Kong does have an estate tax on values exceeding HK$7 million, but the maximum rate is only 18 percent. (3)
Fortunately, the U.S. government has recently recognized the negative drain these taxes have on the economy. It has reduced long-term capital gains, and Congress has even entertained a bill to abolish federal estate taxes altogether.
Eliminating taxes on estates and capital gains has been criticized as a break for the rich. Moreover, critics say, estate taxes should be kept in order to establish a level playing field. They argue, “Children and grandchildren of wealthy people didn’t earn inherited money. They should have to work for it, just as their parents did. Inheritances create disincentives to work.”
But these critics fail to understand the broader implications of a large tax-free estate and tax-free capital gains. Everyone-not just the rich-benefits from eliminating these taxes because wealthy people’s capital would be left intact, invested in the stock market, businesses, farms, banks, insurance companies, real estate, and other capital assets, thus insuring strong economic growth and a high standard of living for everyone. As Ludwig von Mises once stated, “Do they realize that every measure leading to capital decumulation jeopardizes their prosperity?” (4)
As an investment adviser, I share the concern that unrestricted inheritances to children or grandchildren can be morally corrupting, but there are other solutions besides a confiscatory tax. For example, a will can limit the use of inherited funds until a certain age of responsibility is reached, or a trust can offer matching funds as a way to encourage work and responsibility.
1. John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920), p. 20.
2. Ibid., pp. 20-21.
3. For an excellent summary of tax policies throughout the world, see International Tax Summaries, published annually by Coopers & Lybrand (New York: John Wiley & Sons).
4. Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom, 4th ed. (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1980), p. 208.