In modern taxation systems, taxes are levied in money, but in-kind and corvée taxation are characteristic of traditional or pre-capitalist states and their functional equivalents. The method of taxation and the government expenditure of taxes raised is often highly debated in politics and economics. Tax collection is performed by a government agency such as Canada Revenue Agency, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the United States, or Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in the UK. When taxes are not fully paid, civil penalties (such as fines or forfeiture) or criminal penalties (such as incarceration) may be imposed on the non-paying entity or individual.
Governments use different kinds of taxes and vary the tax rates. This is done to distribute the tax burden among individuals or classes of the population involved in taxable activities, such as business, or to redistribute resources between individuals or classes in the population. Historically, the nobility were supported by taxes on the poor; modern social security systems are intended to support the poor, the disabled, or the retired by taxes on those who are still working. In addition, taxes are applied to fund foreign and military aid, to influence the macroeconomic performance of the economy (the government's strategy for doing this is called its fiscal policy - see also tax exemption), or to modify patterns of consumption or employment within an economy, by making some classes of transaction more or less attractive.
A nation's tax system is often a reflection of its communal values or the values of those in power. To create a system of taxation, a nation must make choices regarding the distribution of the tax burden — who will pay taxes and how much they will pay — and how the taxes collected will be spent. In democratic nations where the public elects those in charge of establishing the tax system, these choices reflect the type of community which the public wishes to create. In countries where the public does not have a significant amount of influence over the system of taxation, that system may be more of a reflection on the values of those in power.
The resource collected from the public through taxation is always greater than the amount which can be used by the government. The difference is called compliance cost, and includes for example the labour cost and other expenses incurred in complying with tax laws and rules. The collection of a tax in order to spend it on a specified purpose, for example collecting a tax on alcohol to pay directly for alcoholism rehabilitation centres, is called hypothecation. This practice is often disliked by finance ministers, since it reduces their freedom of action. Some economic theorists consider the concept to be intellectually dishonest since (in reality) money is fungible. Furthermore, it often happens that taxes or excises initially levied to fund some specific government programs are then later diverted to the government general fund. In some cases, such taxes are collected in fundamentally inefficient ways, for example highway tolls.
Some economists, especially neo-classical economists, argue that all taxation creates market distortion and results in economic inefficiency. They have therefore sought to identify the kind of tax system that would minimize this distortion. Also, one of every government's most fundamental duties is to administer possession and use of land in the geographic area over which it is sovereign, and it is considered economically efficient for government to recover for public purposes the additional value it creates by providing this unique service.
Since governments also resolve commercial disputes, especially in countries with common law, similar arguments are sometimes used to justify a sales tax or value added tax. Others (e.g. libertarians) argue that most or all forms of taxes are immoral due to their involuntary (and therefore eventually coercive/violent) nature. The most extreme anti-tax view is anarcho-capitalism, in which the provision of all social services should be a matter of voluntary private contracts.
The main purpose is revenue: taxes raise money to spend on roads, schools and hospitals, and on more indirect government functions like market regulation or justice systems. This is the most widely known function.
A second is redistribution. Normally, this means transferring wealth from the richer sections of society to poorer sections. This function is widely accepted in most democracies, although the extent to which this should happen is always controversial.
A third purpose of taxation is repricing. Taxes are levied to address externalities: tobacco is taxed, for example, to discourage smoking, and many people advocate policies such as implementing a carbon tax.
A fourth, consequential effect of taxation in its historical setting has been representation. The American revolutionary slogan "no taxation without representation" implied this: rulers tax citizens, and citizens demand accountability from their rulers as the other part of this bargain. Several studies have shown that direct taxation (such as income taxes) generates the greatest degree of accountability and better governance, while indirect taxation tends to have smaller effects.
Law establishes from whom a tax is collected. In many countries, taxes are imposed on business (such as corporate taxes or portions of payroll taxes). However, who ultimately pays the tax (the tax "burden") is determined by the marketplace as taxes become embedded into production costs. Depending on how quantities supplied and demanded vary with price (the "elasticities" of supply and demand), a tax can be absorbed by the seller (in the form of lower pre-tax prices), or by the buyer (in the form of higher post-tax prices). If the elasticity of supply is low, more of the tax will be paid by the supplier. If the elasticity of demand is low, more will be paid by the customer. And contrariwise for the cases where those elasticities are high. If the seller is a competitive firm, the tax burden flows back to the factors of production depending on the elasticities thereof; this includes workers (in the form of lower wages), capital investors (in the form of loss to shareholders), landowners (in the form of lower rents) and entrepreneurs (in the form of lower wages of superintendence).
To illustrate this relationship, suppose the market price of a product is US$1.00, and that a $0.50 tax is imposed on the product that, by law, is to be collected from the seller. If the product is a luxury (in the economic sense of the term), a greater portion of the tax will be absorbed by the seller. For example, the seller might drop the price of the product to $0.70 so that, after adding in the tax, the buyer pays a total of $1.20, or $0.20 more than he did before the $0.50 tax was imposed. In this example, the buyer has paid $0.20 of the $0.50 tax (in the form of a post-tax price) and the seller has paid the remaining $0.30 (in the form of a lower pre-tax price).
The first known system of taxation was in Ancient Egypt around 3000 BC - 2800 BC in the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Records from the time document that the pharaoh would conduct a biennial tour of the kingdom, collecting tax revenues from the people. Early taxation is also described in the Bible. In Genesis (chapter 47, verse 24 - the New International Version), it states "But when the crop comes in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh. The other four-fifths you may keep as seed for the fields and as food for yourselves and your households and your children." Joseph was telling the people of Egypt how to divide their crop, providing a portion to the Pharaoh. A share (20%) of the crop was the tax.
In India, Islamic rulers imposed jizya starting in the 11th century. It was abolished by Akbar. Quite a few records of government tax collection in Europe since at least the 17th century are still available today. But taxation levels are hard to compare to the size and flow of the economy since production numbers are not as readily available. Government expenditures and revenue in France during the 17th century went from about 24.30 million livres in 1600-10 to about 126.86 million livres in 1650-59 to about 117.99 million livres in 1700-10 when government debt had reached 1.6 billion livres. In 1780-89 it reached 421.50 million livres. Taxation as a percentage of production of final goods may have reached 15% - 20% during the 17th century in places like France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. During the war-filled years of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, tax rates in Europe increased dramatically as war became more expensive and governments became more centralized and adept at gathering taxes. This increase was greatest in England, Peter Mathias and Patrick O'Brien found that the tax burden increased by 85% over this period. Another study confirmed this number, finding that per capita tax revenues had grown almost sixfold over the eighteenth century, but that steady economic growth had made the real burden on each individual only double over this period before the industrial revolution. Average tax rates were higher in Britain than France the years before the French Revolution, twice in per capita income comparison, but they were mostly placed on international trade. In France, taxes were lower but the burden was mainly on landowners, individuals, and internal trade and thus created far more resentment.
Taxation as a percentage of GDP in 2003 was 56.1% in Denmark, 54.5% in France, 49.0% in the Euro area, 42.6% in the United Kingdom, 35.7% in the United States, 35.2% in The Republic of Ireland, and among all OECD members an average of 40.7%.
Other obsolete forms of taxation include:
Some principalities taxed windows, doors, or cabinets to reduce consumption of imported glass and hardware. Armoires, hutches, and wardrobes were employed to evade taxes on doors and cabinets. In extraordinary circumstances, taxes are also used to enforce public policy like congestion charge (to cut road traffic and encourage public transport) in London. In Tsarist Russia, taxes were clamped on beards. Today, one of the most complicated taxation-systems worldwide is in Germany. Three quarters of the world's taxation-literature refers to the German system. There are 118 laws, 185 forms, and 96,000 regulations, spending €3.7 billion to collect the income tax. Today, governments of advanced economies of EU, North America, and others rely more on direct taxes, while those of developing economies of India, Africa, and others rely more on indirect taxes.
For goods supplied in a perfectly competitive market, tax reduces economic efficiency, by introducing a deadweight loss. In a perfect market, the price of a particular economic good adjusts to make sure that all trades which benefit both the buyer and the seller of a good occur. After introducing a tax, the price received by the seller is less than the cost to the buyer. This means that fewer trades occur and that the individuals or businesses involved gain less from participating in the market. This destroys value, and is known as the 'deadweight cost of taxation'.
The deadweight cost is dependent on the elasticity of supply and demand for a good.
Most taxes — including income tax and sales tax — can have significant deadweight costs. The only way to avoid deadweight costs in an economy which is generally competitive is to find taxes which do not change economic incentives, such as the land value tax, where the tax is on a good in completely inelastic supply, or a lump sum tax. To do so is very difficult: the closest approximations are a poll tax paid by all adults regardless of their choices, or a windfall tax which is entirely unanticipated and so cannot affect decisions.
In some cases where the economy is not perfectly competitive, the existence of a tax can increase economic efficiency. If there is a negative externality associated with a good, meaning that it has negative effects not felt by the consumer, then the free market will trade too much of that good. By putting a tax on the good, the government can increase overall welfare as well as raising revenue in taxation. This is known as a 'double dividend'.
There are a wide range of goods where there is, or is claimed to be, a negative externality. Polluting fuels (like petrol), goods which incur public healthcare costs (such as alcohol or tobacco), and charges for existing 'free' public goods (like congestion charging) all offer the possibility of a double dividend. This type of tax is a Pigovian tax, sometimes colloquially known as a 'sin tax'. It is worthwhile noting that taxation is not necessarily the only, or the best, method of dealing with negative externalities.
Another concern is that the complicated tax codes of developed economies offer perverse economic incentives. The more details of tax policy there are, the more opportunities for legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion; these not only result in lost revenue, but involve additional deadweight costs: for instance, payments made for tax advice are essentially deadweight costs because they add no wealth to the economy. Perverse incentives also occur because of non-taxable 'hidden' transactions; for instance, a sale from one company to another might be liable for sales tax, but if the same goods were shipped from one branch of a corporation to another, no tax would be payable.
To address these issues, economists often suggest simple and transparent tax structures which avoid providing loopholes. Sales tax, for instance, can be replaced with a value added tax which disregards intermediate transactions.
Economic theory suggests that the economic effect of tax does not necessarily fall at the point where it is legally levied. For instance, a tax on employment paid by employers will impact on the employee, at least in the long run. The greatest share of the tax burden tends to fall on the most inelastic factor involved - the part of the transaction which is affected least by a change in price. So, for instance, a tax on wages in a town will (at least in the long run) affect property-owners in that area.
Although governments must spend money on tax collection activities, some of the costs, particularly for keeping records and filling out forms, are borne by businesses and by private individuals. These are collectively called costs of compliance. More complex tax systems tend to have higher costs of compliance. This fact can be used as the basis for practical or moral arguments in favor of tax simplification (see, for example, FairTax), or tax elimination (in addition to moral arguments described above).
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of worldwide tax systems. In order to do this it has created a comprehensive categorisation of all taxes in all regimes which it covers:
Excises (or exemptions from them) are also used to modify consumption patterns (social engineering). For example, a high excise is used to discourage alcohol consumption, relative to other goods. This may be combined with hypothecation if the proceeds are then used to pay for the costs of treating illness caused by alcohol abuse. Similar taxes may exist on tobacco, pornography, etc., and they may be collectively referred to as "sin taxes". A carbon tax is a tax on the consumption of carbon-based non-renewable fuels, such as petrol, diesel-fuel, jet fuels, and natural gas. The object is to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere. In the United Kingdom, vehicle excise duty is an annual tax on vehicle ownership.
An income tax is a tax levied on the financial income of persons, corporations, or other legal entities. Various income tax systems exist, with varying degrees of tax incidence. Income taxation can be progressive, proportional, or regressive. When the tax is levied on the income of companies, it is often called a corporate tax, corporate income tax, or corporation tax. Individual income taxes often tax the total income of the individual (with some deductions permitted), while corporate income taxes often tax net income (the difference between gross receipts, expenses, and additional write-offs).
The "tax net" refers to the types of payment that are taxed, which included personal earnings (wages), capital gains, and business income. The rates for different types of income may vary and some may not be taxed at all. Capital gains may be taxed when realized (e.g. when shares are sold) or when incurred (e.g. when shares appreciate in value). Business income may only be taxed if it is significant or based on the manner in which it is paid. Some types of income, such as interest on bank savings, may be considered as personal earnings (similar to wages) or as a realized property gain (similar to selling shares). In some tax systems, personal earnings may be strictly defined where labor, skill, or investment is required (e.g. wages); in others, they may be defined broadly to include windfalls (e.g. gambling wins).
Personal income tax is often collected on a pay-as-you-earn basis, with small corrections made soon after the end of the tax year. These corrections take one of two forms: payments to the government, for taxpayers who have not paid enough during the tax year; and tax refunds from the government for those who have overpaid. Income tax systems will often have deductions available that lessen the total tax liability by reducing total taxable income. They may allow losses from one type of income to be counted against another. For example, a loss on the stock market may be deducted against taxes paid on wages. Other tax systems may isolate the loss, such that business losses can only be deducted against business tax by carrying forward the loss to later tax years.
Inheritance tax, estate tax, and death tax or duty are the names given to various taxes which arise on the death of an individual. In United States tax law, there is a distinction between an estate tax and an inheritance tax: the former taxes the personal representatives of the deceased, while the latter taxes the beneficiaries of the estate. However, this distinction does not apply in other jurisdictions; for example, if using this terminology UK inheritance tax would be an estate tax.
Property taxes are usually charged on a recurrent basis (e.g., yearly). A common type of property tax is an annual charge on the ownership of real estate, where the tax base is the estimated value of the property. For a period of over 150 years from 1695 a window tax was levied in England, with the result that one can still see listed buildings with windows bricked up in order to save their owners money. A similar tax on hearths existed in France and elsewhere, with similar results. The two most common type of event driven property taxes are stamp duty, charged upon change of ownership, and inheritance tax, which is imposed in many countries on the estates of the deceased.
In contrast with a tax on real estate (land and buildings), a land value tax is levied only on the unimproved value of the land ("land" in this instance may mean either the economic term, i.e., all natural resources, or the natural resources associated with specific areas of the earth's surface: "lots" or "land parcels"). Proponents of land value tax argue that it is economically justified, as it will not deter production, distort market mechanisms or otherwise create deadweight losses the way other taxes do.
When real estate is held by a higher government unit or some other entity not subject to taxation by the local government, the taxing authority may receive a payment in lieu of taxes to compensate it for some or all of the foregone tax revenue.
In many jurisdictions (including many American states), there is a general tax levied periodically on residents who own personal property (personalty) within the jurisdiction. Vehicle and boat registration fees are subsets of this kind of tax. The tax is often designed with blanket coverage and large exceptions for things like food and clothing. Household goods are often exempt when kept or used within the household. Any otherwise non-exempt object can lose its exemption if regularly kept outside the household. Thus, tax collectors often monitor newspaper articles for stories about wealthy people who have lent art to museums for public display, because the artworks have then become subject to personal property tax. If an artwork had to be sent to another state for some touch-ups, it may have become subject to personal property tax in that state as well.
These taxes are sometimes regressive in their immediate effect. For example, in the United States, each worker, whatever his or her income, pays at the same rate up to a specified cap, but income over the cap is not taxed. A further regressive feature is that such taxes often exclude investment earnings and other forms of income that are more likely to be received by the wealthy. The regressive effect is somewhat offset, however, by the eventual benefit payments, which typically replace a higher percentage of a lower-paid worker's pre-retirement income.
A small number of US states rely entirely on sales taxes for state revenue, as those states do not levy a state income tax. Such states tend to have a moderate to large amount of tourism or inter-state travel that occurs within their borders, allowing the state to benefit from taxes from people the state would otherwise not tax. In this way, the state is able to reduce the tax burden on its citizens. The US states that do not levy a state income tax are Alaska, Tennessee, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington state, and Wyoming. Additionally, New Hampshire and Tennessee levy state income taxes only on dividends and interest income. Of the above states, only Alaska and New Hampshire do not levy a state sales tax. Additional information can be obtained at the Federation of Tax Administrators website.
In the United States, there is a growing movement for the replacement of all federal payroll and income taxes (both corporate and personal) with a national retail sales tax and monthly tax rebate to households of citizens and legal resident aliens. The tax proposal is named FairTax. In Canada, the federal sales tax is called the Goods and Services tax (GST) and now stands at 5%. The provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island also have a provincial sales tax [PST]. The provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland & Labrador have harmonized their provincial sales taxes with the GST - Harmonized Sales Tax [HST], and thus is a full VAT. The province of Quebec collects the Quebec Sales Tax [QST] which is based on the GST with certain differences. Most businesses can claim back the GST, HST and QST they pay, and so effectively it is the final consumer who pays the tax.
Shunpiking is the practice of finding another route to avoid payment of tolls. In some situations where tolls were increased or felt to be unreasonably high, informal shunpiking by individuals escalated into a form of boycott by regular users, with the goal of applying the financial stress of lost toll revenue to the authority determining the levy.
VAT is usually administrated by requiring the company to complete a VAT return, giving details of VAT it has been charged (referred to as input tax) and VAT it has charged to others (referred to as output tax). The difference between output tax and input tax is payable to the Local Tax Authority. If input tax is greater than output tax the company can claim back money from the Local Tax Authority. VAT was historically used to counter evasion in a sales tax or excise. By collecting the tax at each production level, the theory is that the entire economy helps in the enforcement. However, forged invoices and similar evasion methods have demonstrated that there are always those who will attempt to evade taxation.
Economic theorists have argued that the collection process of VAT minimises the market distortion resulting from the tax, compared to a sales tax. However, VAT is held by some to discourage production.
According to most political philosophies, taxes are justified as they fund activities that are necessary and beneficial to society. Additionally, progressive taxation can be used to reduce inequality in a society. According to this view, taxation in modern nation-states benefit the majority of the population and social development. A common presentation of this view, paraphrasing various statements by Oliver Wendell Holmes is "Taxes are the price of civilization".
It can also be argued that in a democracy, because the government is the party performing the act of imposing taxes, society as a whole decides how the tax system should be organised. The American Revolution's "No taxation without representation" slogan implied this view. For traditional conservatives, the payment of taxation is justified as part of the general obligations of citizens to obey the law and support established institutions. The conservative position is encapsulated in perhaps the most famous adage of public finance, "An old tax is a good tax". Conservatives advocate the "fundamental conservative premise that no one should be excused from paying for government,lest they come to believe that government is costless to them with the cer- tain consequence that they will demand more government "services." Social democrats generally favor relatively higher levels of taxation to fund public provision of a wide range of services such as universal health care and education, as well as the provision of a range of welfare benefits. As argued by Tony Crosland and others, the capacity to tax income from capital is a central element of the social democratic case for a mixed economy as against Marxist arguments for comprehensive public ownership of capital. Many libertarians recommend a minimal level of taxation in order to maximize the protection of liberty.
Compulsory taxation of individuals, such as income tax, is often justified on grounds including territorial sovereignty, and the social contract. Defenders of business taxation argue that it is an efficient method of taxing income that ultimately flows to individuals, or that separate taxation of business is justified on the grounds that commercial activity necessarily involves use of publicly established and maintained economic infrastructure, and that businesses are in effect charged for this use. Georgist economists argue that all of the economic rent collected from natural resources (land, mineral extraction, fishing quotas, etc.) is unearned income, and belong to the community rather than any individual. They advocate a high tax on land and other natural resources to return this unearned income to the state.
Most governments need revenue which exceeds that which can be provided by non-distortionary taxes or through taxes which give a double dividend. Optimal taxation theory is the branch of economics that considers how taxes can be structured to give the least deadweight costs, or to give the best outcomes in terms of social welfare.
Ramsey optimal taxation deals with minimising deadweight costs. Because deadweight costs are related to the elasticity of supply and demand for a good, it follows that putting the highest tax rates on the goods for which there is most inelastic supply and demand will result in the least overall deadweight costs.
Some economists have sought to integrate optimal tax theory with the social welfare function, which is the economic expression of the idea that equality is valuable to a greater or lesser extent. If individuals experience diminishing returns from income, then the optimum distribution of income for society involves a progressive income tax. Mirrlees optimal income tax is a detailed theoretical model of the optimum progressive income tax along these lines.
Over the last years the validity of the theory of optimal taxation was discussed by many political economists. Canegrati (2007) demonstrated that if we move from the assumption that governments do not maximise the welfare of society but the probability of winning elections. In equilibrium, tax rates are lower for the most powerful groups of society, instead of being the lowest for the poorest as in the optimal theory of direct taxation developed by Atkinson and Stiglitz. See Canegrati's formulae
Because payment of tax is usually compulsory and enforced by the police and justice system, some political philosophies view taxation as theft, accusing the government of levying taxes via force and coercive means. Individualist anarchists, objectivists, anarcho-capitalists, and some libertarians see taxation as government aggression (see zero aggression principle). The view that democracy legitimizes taxation is rejected by those who argue that all forms of government, including democracy, are fundamentally oppressive. According to Ludwig von Mises, "society as a whole" should not make such decisions, due to methodological individualism. Libertarian opponents of taxation claim that governmental protection, such as police and defense forces could be replaced by market alternatives such as private defense agencies, arbitration agencies or voluntary contributions. Walter E. Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, stated "Government income redistribution programs produce the same result as theft. In fact, that's what a thief does; he redistributes income. The difference between government and thievery is mostly a matter of legality.
Taxation has also been opposed by communists. Karl Marx assumed that taxation would be unnecessary after the advent of communism and looked forward to the "withering away of the state". In communist economies such as that of China, taxation played a minor role, since most government income was derived from the ownership of enterprises, and it was argued by some that taxation was not necessary. While the morality of taxation is sometimes questioned, most arguments about taxation revolve around the degree and method of taxation and associated government spending, not taxation itself.
If a tax is paid on outsourced services that is not also charged on services performed for oneself, then it may be cheaper to perform the services oneself than to pay someone else. Even considering losses in economic efficiency.
For example, suppose jobs A and B are both valued at $1 on the market. And suppose that because of your unique abilities, you can do job A twice over (100% extra output) in the same effort as it would take you to do job B. But job B is the one that you need done right now. Under perfect division of labor, you would do job A and somebody else would do job B. Your unique abilities would always be rewarded.
But now consider your choices when the total marginal tax rate (over all levels of government) is 50%. You are trying to decide whether to do job A twice over or to do job B. First, suppose you do job A twice over, for $2. Your $2 is taxed at 50%, so you end up with $1 which is just enough to pay somebody else to do job B. So there is no reward for doing what you are better at. If your extra output at job A were shy of 100%, then there would actually be a penalty for dividing the labor more efficiently!
Income taxation has the worst effect on division of labor in the form of barter. Suppose that the person doing job B is actually interested in having job A done for him. Now suppose you could amazingly do job A four times over, selling half your work on the market for cash just to pay your tax bill. The other half of the work you do for somebody who does job B twice over but he has to sell off half to pay his tax bill. You're left with one unit of job B, but only if you were 400% as productive doing job A! In this case of 50% tax on barter income, anything less than 400% productivity will cause the division of labor to fail.
In summary, depending on the situation a 50% tax rate can cause the division of labor to fail even where productivity gains of up to 300% would have resulted. Even a mere 30% tax rate can negate the advantage of a 100% productivity gain.