Adam Smith, the father of economics, published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations nearly 240 years ago[i]. Soon after, an extraordinary flourishing of innovation and human well-being took off and transformed the globe. According to economist Deirdre McCloskey, the average American today is roughly 30 to 100 times better off than our ancestors in 1800[ii], the point when humanity began to escape crushing poverty. Notwithstanding modern prosperity, however, human nature hasn’t changed much. Smith’s insights remain relevant.
The Wealth of Nations considers taxation in Book V, Chapter 2: “Of the Sources of the General or Public Revenue of the Society.” In the prior chapter, “Of the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth,” he describes the primary functions of the national government. Some—like defense—need to be paid for by general revenue, while others—like transportation infrastructure—can be built and maintained with fees paid by users.
Revenue policy should fund the necessary expenses of the government. Not to benefit this or that industry. Not to advance social objectives. Certainly not to suppress political speech.
Smith set out four goals for evaluating tax options. First, tax contributions should be proportionate to abilities. Second, the rules should be certain and not arbitrary. Third, taxes should be levied when and how its payment is most convenient. Fourth, collection should minimize administrative overhead.
He then evaluated possible tax bases using those principles: rents of land and houses, profits, wealth, wages, head taxes, and consumption. He concluded that the ideal tax bases are residential property and consumption, particularly on luxury goods.
What does Adam Smith have to do with the FairTax? Everything. Setting aside property taxes—a state and local issue—consider how his principles relate to a consumption tax like the FairTax.
Is it proportionate to abilities? Yes. Those who earn more also consume more, thus contributing proportionately more to the general revenue. Savings—which our current tax system discourages but the FairTax would not—provide no current consumption benefits. They are deferred consumption, which in the meantime enables others to borrow to finance education, infrastructure, factories, and much more while also reducing the trade deficit.
Is the FairTax certain and not arbitrary? Yes. Everyone pays the same, known rate on consumption.
Is it convenient to pay? Yes. Merchants include the tax in the prices of final goods and services, which consumers pay all at once. Businesses simply remit the revenue to the government from time to time.
The FairTax also minimizes administrative overhead. The U.S. has around six million businesses.[iii] Not all would collect revenue under the FairTax, since many don’t sell directly to consumers. Current tax law requires the processing of six million business returns, 150 million individual and household tax returns[iv] (some overlap), and various trust, foundation, and other returns that are processed today, all under a complex, burdensome, and unFairTax code.
A broad-based consumption tax like the FairTax has other benefits. It eliminates the bureaucratic discretion that enabled the illegal and corrupt targeting of political speech, as the Richmond Tea Party experienced first-hand. Less taxation on productive activities yields greater physical and human capital investment by businesses and individuals, which makes workers more productive, boosting their compensation and standards of living while also increasing returns to saving.
It eliminates a major source of favor trading between Congress and big businesses. The concentrated interests of businesses associations create enormous pressure for Congress to provide tax preferences. The FairTax dramatically reduces the ability of political insiders to manipulate the tax system.
After nearly a decade of poor economic performance, we need comprehensive, pro-growth, simplifying tax reform like the FairTax. That’s why I’m a proud cosponsor of H.R. 25. To fully restore the American Dream, however, we must also pursue major regulatory and spending reforms.
We can have even more of the market-tested innovations that improve our lives and that would have astounded Adam Smith and our ancestors. Smart policy reforms—like the FairTax—can clear the path.
, Appendix Table 1, pp. 7.
, “All Returns: Selected Income and Tax Items: 2013”
Congressman Dave Brat represents Virginia’s 7th congressional district, serving since 2014 when he won a special election. Brat is a member of the House Budget Committee, Education and the Workforce Committee, and Small Business Committee. He has a Ph.D. in economics, formerly was a professor of economics and chairman of the economics department at Randolph Macon College, and previously worked for the World Bank and Arthur Andersen.