Reading: Financing Government

If government services are to be provided, people must pay for them. The primary source of government revenue is taxes. In this section we examine the principles of taxation, compare alternative types of taxes, and consider the question of who actually bears the burden of taxes.

In addition to imposing taxes, governments obtain revenue by charging user fees, which are fees levied on consumers of government-provided services. The tuition and other fees charged by public universities and colleges are user fees, as are entrance fees at national parks. Finally, government agencies might obtain revenue by selling assets or by holding bonds on which they earn interest.

Principles of Taxation

Virtually anything can be taxed, but what should be taxed? Are there principles to guide us in choosing a system of taxes?

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a minister of finance in seventeenth-century France, is generally credited with one of the most famous principles of taxation:

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

Economists, who do not typically deal with geese, cite two criteria for designing a tax system. The first is based on the ability of people to pay taxes and the second focuses on the benefits they receive from particular government services.

Ability to Pay

The ability-to-pay principle holds that people with more income should pay more taxes. As income rises, the doctrine asserts, people are able to pay more for public services; a tax system should therefore be constructed so that taxes rise too. Wealth, the total of assets less liabilities, is sometimes used as well as income as a measure of ability to pay.

The ability-to-pay doctrine lies at the heart of tax systems that link taxes paid to income received. The relationship between taxes and income may take one of three forms: taxes can be regressive, proportional, or progressive.

Regressive Tax

regressive tax is one that takes a higher percentage of income as income falls. Taxes on cigarettes, for example, are regressive. Cigarettes are an inferior good—their consumption falls as incomes rise. Thus, people with lower incomes spend more on cigarettes than do people with higher incomes. The cigarette taxes paid by low-income people represent a larger share of their income than do the cigarette taxes paid by high-income people and are thus regressive.

Proportional Tax

proportional tax is one that takes a fixed percentage of income. Total taxes rise as income rises, but taxes are equal to the same percentage no matter what the level of income. Some people argue that the U.S. income tax system should be changed into a flat tax system, a tax that would take the same percentage of income from all taxpayers. Such a tax would be a proportional tax.

Progressive Tax

progressive tax is one that takes a higher percentage of income as income rises. The federal income tax is an example of a progressive tax. Table 15.1 shows federal income tax rates for various brackets of income for a family of four in 2007. Such a family paid no income tax at all if its income fell below $24,300. At higher income levels, families faced a higher percentage tax rate. Any income over $374,000, for example, was taxed at a rate of 35%. Whether or not to make the tax system more progressive was a major debating point during the U.S. presidential election of 2008.

Table 15.1 Federal Income Tax Brackets, 2007

2007 adjusted gross income
(family of four)
Personal income tax rate
applied to bracket
Less than $24,300 Zero (family may receive earned income credit)
$24,300–$88,000 15%
$88,000–152,800 25%
$152,800–$220,150 28%
$220,150–$374,000 33%
Greater than $374,000 35%

The federal income tax is progressive. The percentage tax rate rises as adjusted gross income rises.

While a pure flat tax would be proportional, most proposals for such a tax would exempt some income from taxation. Suppose, for example, that households paid a “flat” tax of 20% on all income over $40,000 per year. This tax would be progressive. A household with an income of $25,000 per year would pay no tax. One with an income of $50,000 per year would pay a tax of $2,000 (.2 times $10,000), or 4% of its income. A household with an income of $100,000 per year would pay a tax of $12,000 (.2 times $60,000) per year, or 12% of its income. A flat tax with an income exemption would thus be a progressive tax.

Benefits Received

An alternative criterion for establishing a tax structure is the benefits-received principle, which holds that a tax should be based on the benefits received from the government services funded by the tax.

Local governments rely heavily on taxes on property, in large part because the benefits of many local services, including schools, streets, and the provision of drainage for wastewater, are reflected in higher property values. Suppose, for example, that public schools in a particular area are especially good. People are willing to pay more for houses served by those schools, so property values are higher; property owners benefit from better schools. The greater their benefit, the greater the property tax they pay. The property tax can thus be viewed as a tax on benefits received from some local services.

User fees for government services apply the benefits-received principle directly. A student paying tuition, a visitor paying an entrance fee at a national park, and a motorist paying a highway toll are all paying to consume a publicly provided service; they are thus paying directly for something from which they expect to benefit. Such fees can be used only for goods for which exclusion is possible; a user fee could not be applied to a service such as national defense.

Income taxes to finance public goods may satisfy both the ability-to-pay and benefits-received principles. The demand for public goods generally rises with income. Thus, people with higher incomes benefit more from public goods. The benefits-received principle thus suggests that taxes should rise with income, just as the ability-to-pay principle does. Consider, for example, an effort financed through income taxes by the federal government to clean up the environment. People with higher incomes will pay more for the cleanup than people with lower incomes, consistent with the ability-to-pay principle. Studies by economists consistently show that people with higher incomes have a greater demand for environmental improvement than do people with lower incomes—a clean environment is a normal good. Requiring people with higher incomes to pay more for the cleanup can thus be justified on the benefits-received principle as well.

Certainly taxes cannot respond precisely to benefits received. Neither the ability-to-pay nor the benefits-received doctrine gives us a recipe for determining just what each person “should” pay in taxes, but these doctrines give us a framework for thinking about the justification for particular taxes.