Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

 Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) has authored H.R. 25 “To promote freedom, fairness, and economic opportunity by repealing the income tax and other taxes, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and enacting a national sales tax to be administered primarily by the States.” Before we look at whether a national sales tax is a good idea, how about a little Economics 101 just to convince you that government spending, not government taxation, is the true measure of governmental impact on our lives?  Keeping the numbers small, suppose the annual value of what Americans produce, our gross domestic product, is $100. If government spends $40 of it, of necessity the government must force us to spend $40 less. There are several ways this can be done. Government could tax us $40. Government could borrow, thereby driving up interest rates and reducing private spending. Government could simply print money, which would cause inflation and reduce our purchasing power. Finally, government could employ some combination of the three.

 The bottom line is that if government spends $40 of our GDP, we can’t spend that same $40. There’s no question that tax reform is needed, but tax reform is secondary to a much larger issue – federal spending. From 1787 to 1920, except during war, federal spending was a mere 3 percent of GDP, compared to today’s 20 percent. If the federal government takes only 3 percent of the GDP, just about any tax system is relatively non-oppressive. However, if government were to take 50 percent, 60 percent or 70 percent of the GDP, you tell me what tax system would be non-oppressive.

 There’s no question that some forms of taxation are worse than others. In addition to its economic disincentive effects and intrusions on personal privacy, our income tax has huge compliance costs estimated to be between $250 billion and $500 billion each year.

 Abolition of the IRS and the income tax code it enforces, replaced by a national sales, would create greater economic incentives, enhance personal privacy, and lower tax compliance cost by an estimated 90 percent. There’d also be greater faith and allegiance to our founders’ constitutional vision, expressed in Article I, Section 9, which says, “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.” The founders feared the abuse and the government power inherent in an income tax. Another benefit of a national sales tax is that being taxed 23 percent to 30 percent with every purchase we become more aware of the cost of government. Income taxes and corporate taxes conceal that cost.

 Before we accept a national sales tax, there are two minimal requirements. First, there must be a repeal of the 16th Amendment so Congress can’t hit us with both an income and sales tax. Second, there must be a constitutional amendment fixing the national sales tax at a certain percentage that can only be increased by a three-fourths vote of the House of Representatives.

 People have advocated a national sales tax or a flat income tax for years, and I don’t want to rain on their parade. But here’s my prediction: Congress will never enact a sales tax or a flat tax. Why? The two most powerful congressional committees are the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. Both dispense tax favors to different Americans that come at the expense of other Americans. With a sales or flat tax, their Santa Claus roles, not to mention campaign contributions, would be diminished. On top of that, they’d have restricted opportunities for social engineering through fiddling around with the tax code.

 My personal preference is a constitutional amendment limiting federal spending to a fixed percentage, say 10 percent, of the GDP. You say, “Williams, why 10 percent?” My answer is that if 10 percent is good enough for the Baptist Church, it ought to be good enough for the U.S. Congress.