Taxation and Economic Performance

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Over the past two centuries, economists have debated whether or not higher rates of taxation lead to increased levels of government revenues. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith pointed to a reduced level of revenues from substantially higher tariffs and duties on traded goods. In the twentieth century, the Laffer Curve postulated that there would be no government revenue at a taxation level of 100 percent or 0 percent. More recently, the debate focused on the tax increases of 1990 and 1993, which were designed to reduce the federal budget deficit through an increase in government revenues. In fact, the forecasted revenue generation following each tax increase fell short of the mark.

Increases in tax rates have not raised the desired additional revenues, but they have dampened economic activity. Higher tax rates tend to reduce the tax base as taxpayers have disincentives to work, produce, save, or invest. There are, however, incentives to hide, shelter, and underreport income as tax rates are raised. Thus, the economy as a whole tends to perform less well following a tax increase. Conversely, the economy tends to perform more favorably following a reduction in tax rates. In the postwar period, government revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product have averaged 19.5 percent despite marginal income tax rates as high as 92 percent and as low as 28 percent. Despite the historic record, policy makers continue to embrace the notion that an increase in marginal tax rates will raise revenues without any attendant adverse effects on economic growth, job creation, or standard of living.