Murray Rothbard On the Ingeniously Destructive Power of VAT
Like locust infestations and cicada spawning, the value added tax proposal is something that comes around every few years but is always treated as some surprising new thing. Take the wayback machine to 1972—a remote time when America had a hobbled economy, a lousy president and a war that just kept going on and on—to hear how the late Murray Rothbard viewed the economic solution that President Obama has either never heard of or is seriously considering:
The VAT is essentially a national sales tax, levied in proportion to the goods and services produced and sold. But its delightful concealment comes from the fact that the VAT is levied at each step of the way in the production process: on farmer, manufacturer, jobber and wholesaler, and only slightly on the retailer.
The difference is that when a consumer pays a 7 percent sales tax on every purchase, his indignation rises and he points the finger of resentment at the politicians in charge of government; but if the 7 percent tax is hidden and paid by every firm rather than just at retail, the inevitably higher prices will be charged, not to the government where it belongs, but to grasping businessmen and avaricious trade unions.
While consumers, businessmen, and unions all blame each other for inflation like Kilkenny cats, Papa government is able to preserve its lofty moral purity, and to join in denouncing all of these groups for "causing inflation."
It is now easy to see the enthusiasm of the federal government and its economic advisers for the new scheme for a VAT. It allows the government to extract many more funds from the public — to bring about higher prices, lower production, and lower incomes — and yet totally escape the blame, which can easily be loaded on business, unions, or the consumer as the particular administration sees fit.
But the VAT is in many ways far worse than a sales tax, apart from its hidden and clandestine nature. In the first place, the VAT advocates claim that since each firm and stage of production will pay in proportion to its "value added" to production, there will be no misallocation effects along the way.
But this ignores the fact that every business firm will be burdened by the cost of innumerable record keeping and collection for the government. The result will be an inexorable push of the business system toward "vertical mergers" and the reduction of competition.
Suppose, for example, that a crude-oil producer adds the value of $1,000, and that an oil refiner adds another $1,000, and suppose for simplicity that the VAT is 10 percent. Theoretically, it should make no difference if the firms are separate or "integrated"; in the former case, each firm would pay $100 to the government; in the latter, the integrated firm would pay $200. But since this comforting theory ignores the substantial costs of record keeping and the collection, in practice if the crude-oil firm and the oil refiner were integrated into one firm, making only one payment, their costs would be lower…
Hence, vertical mergers will be induced by the VAT, after which the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice would begin to clamor that the free market is producing "monopoly" and that the merger must be broken by government fiat.
The costs of record keeping and payment pose another grave problem for the market economy. Obviously, small firms are less able to bear these costs than big ones, and so the VAT will be a powerful burden on small business, and hamper it gravely in the competitive struggle. It is no wonder that some big businesses look with favor on the VAT!
A further crucial flaw exists in the VAT, a flaw which will bring much grief to our economic system. Most people assume that such a tax will simply be passed on in higher prices to the consumer. But the process is not that simple. While, in the long run, prices to consumers will undoubtedly rise, there will be two other important effects: a large short-run reduction in business profits, and a long-run fall in wage incomes.
The critical blow to profits, while perhaps only "short-run," will take place at a time of business recession, when many firms and industries are suffering from low profits and even from business losses. The low-profit firms and industries will be severely hit by the imposition of VAT, and the result will be to cripple any possible recovery and plunge us deeper into recession. Furthermore, new and creative firms, which usually begin small and with low profits, will be similarly crippled before they have scarcely begun.
The VAT will also have a severe, and so far unacknowledged, effect in aggravating unemployment, which is already at a high recession rate. The grievous impact on unemployment will be twofold. In the first place, any firm that buys, say, machinery, can deduct the embodied VAT from its own tax liability; but if it hires workers, it can make no such deduction. The result will be to spur over-mechanization and the firing of laborers.
Secondly, part of the long-run effect of VAT will be to lower the demand for labor and wage incomes; but since unions and the minimum-wage laws are able to keep wage rates up indefinitely, the impact will be a rise in unemployment. Thus, from two separate and compounding directions, VAT will aggravate an already serious unemployment problem.
Hence, the American public will pay a high price indeed for the clandestine nature of the VAT. We will be mulcted of a large and increasing amount of funds, extracted in a hidden but no less burdensome manner, just at a time when the government seemed to have reached the limit of the tax burden that the people will allow. It will be funds that will aggravate the burdens on the already long-suffering average middle-class American. And to top it off, the VAT will cripple profits; injure competition, small business, and new creative firms; raise prices; and greatly aggravate unemployment. It will pit consumers against business, and intensify conflicts within society.
This is a big excerpt, but the full article is essential reading.
In the current issue of Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson shows how little has changed. Dig the comments for more exciting VAT history.