Flat taxes, implemented as well as proposed, usually exempt household income below a statutorily determined level that is a function of the type and size of the household. As a result, so-called flat taxes are often not a true proportional tax, as taxable income may not equal total income. Nomenclature regarding flat taxes has become increasingly lax, in that taxes that are described as flat sometimes have little to differentiate them from other tax regimes, e.g. progressive taxes.
Proponents of the flat tax claim it is fairer than stepped marginal tax rates, since everybody pays the same proportion. Opponents point out first that it might not make sense for everyone to pay the same proportion when some get advantages of prosperity. Also, they note that for the state to raise the same amount of money under a flat rate tax (to the first order, that is, assuming people earn the same incomes as before) requires that the rich pay less and the poor pay more than they would under a more progressive tax system. Proponents respond to this argument by saying that second-order effects would compensate; a flat tax would remove economic disincentives and encourage economic growth, thus leading to higher incomes and more tax revenues. So taxpayers across income ranges could be paying at the same or lower rate than their old system. Economic models usually predict that flat tax will increase both output and inequality.
Proponents claim that since everybody pays the same rate, it treats everyone equally and thus is fair to everyone. Opponents of the flat tax, on the other hand, claim that since the marginal value of income declines with the amount of income (the last 100 of income of a family living near poverty being considerably more valuable than the last 100 of income of a millionaire), taxing that last 100 of income the same amount despite vast differences in the marginal value of money is unfair. Many flat-tax proponents actually concede this premise since most proposals are not truly totally flat but have a threshold below which income is not taxed at all. Therefore, with the exception of flat-tax proponents who argue for no deductions and taxation of all income at one flat rate, both proponents and opponents agree in principle if not in degree with the basic premise of this concept.
However, the sizable exemptions provided under most flat tax proposals go far in restoring effective progressivity. As income for an individual increases, the exempt income becomes an ever smaller percentage of total income.
The issue of removing deductions, exemptions and special treatments is also relevant to the tax burden, if those special treatments currently benefit the better off. As an example, the tax debate in the UK has recently (2007) focused on the fact that hedge fund managers, some with multi-million pound incomes, "pay less tax than a cleaning lady (actually a lower tax rate rather than less tax), because the hedge fund manager's "income" qualifies as capital gains, taxable at 10%, rather than the cleaner's employment income taxable at 33% (22% income tax plus 11% social security charge). A flat tax that taxed both at the same rate is argued to be fairer than the current, supposedly progressive, system.
We must also consider fairness in relation to the broader concept of justice. Proponents argue that a flat tax would:
Thus, even if a flat-rate taxation is less fair than graduated taxation as a concept, it could produce more social justice.
Under a pure flat tax without deductions, companies could simply, every period, make a single payment to the government covering the flat tax liabilities of their employees and the taxes owed on their business income. For example, suppose that in a given year, ACME earns a profit of 3 million, pays 2 million in salaries, and spends an added 1 million on other expenses the IRS deems to be taxable income, such as stock options, bonuses, and certain executive privileges. Given a flat rate of 15%, ACME would then owe the IRS (3M + 2M + 1M) x0.15 = 900,000. This payment would, in one fell swoop, settle the tax liabilities of ACME's employees as well as taxes it owed by being a firm. Most employees throughout the economy would never need to interact with the IRS, as all tax owed on wages, interest, dividends, royalties, etc. would be withheld at the source. The main exceptions would be employees with incomes from personal ventures. The Economist claims that such a system would reduce the number of entities required to file returns from about 130 million individuals, households, and businesses, as at present, to a mere 8 million businesses and self-employed.
This simplicity would remain even if realized capital gains were subject to the flat tax. In that case, the law would require brokers and mutual funds to calculate the realized capital gain on all sales and redemptions. If there were a gain, 15% of the gain would be withheld and sent to the IRS. If there were a loss, the amount would be reported to the IRS, which would offset gains with losses and settle up with taxpayers at the end of the period.
Under a flat tax, the government's cost of processing tax returns would become much smaller, and the relevant tax bodies could be abolished or massively downsized. The people freed from working in administering taxes will then be employed in jobs that are more productive. If combined with a provision to allow for negative taxation, the flat tax itself can be implemented in an even simpler way. In addition, such a tax reduces the cost of welfare administration significantly.
It is invariably argued that a flat tax will greatly simplify tax compliance and administration. In fact, simplicity does not so much stem from the structure of tax rates (a progressive rate structure is nothing more than a look-up table filling at most one page) as from the definition of what is subject to tax. Tax simplification - getting rid of all the deductions, exemptions, and special rules added over the years - is an issue wholly separable from that of the rate structure. A nation can vastly simplify its tax code while keeping its rate structure progressive. Similarly, a nation could establish a flat tax rate while retaining inordinately complex rules defining the nature of income (such as the imputed interest rules in the US).
It is possible that a flat tax would not remain simple over time, given the realities of interest group politics. While all flat tax proposals propose to eliminate nearly all deductions and credits, some envision keeping the mortgage interest deduction and possibly some others (note that Hall and Rabushka 1995 do not).
Opponents of the flat tax argue that the end result of this race to the bottom is social disintegration (see also failed state), a situation from which even the richest cannot benefit. It is argued that in order to prevent this it is the responsibility of local and national governments everywhere to ensure that the rich pay a fair share of the tax burden. Concepts such as flat rate taxes are therefore said to be irresponsible at a global level, even if they may seem to grant a temporary advantage at a national level. In other words, making economic conditions too desirable in one country may have the effect of forcing other countries to compete by making their conditions equally desirable.
Advocates of the flat tax argue that the former-Communist states of Eastern Europe have benefited from the adoption of a flat tax. Most of these nations have experienced strong economic growth of 6% and higher in recent years, some of them, particularly the Baltic countries, experience exceptional GDP growth of around 10% yearly.
These are countries, as well as minor jurisdictions with the autonomous power to tax, that have adopted tax systems that are commonly described in the media and the professional economics literature as a flat tax.
These are countries where concrete flat tax proposals are currently being considered by influential politicians or political parties.
Flat tax proposals have made something of a "comeback" in recent years. In the United States, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and FreedomWorks have sought grassroots support for the flat tax (Taxpayer Choice Act). In other countries, flat tax systems have also been proposed, largely as a result of flat tax systems being introduced in several countries of the former Eastern Bloc, where it is generally thought to have been successful, although this assessment has been disputed (see below). This has elicited much interest from countries such as the US, where it has gone hand in hand with a general swing towards conservatism.
The countries that have recently reintroduced flat taxes have done so largely in the hope of boosting economic growth. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have had flat taxes of 24%, 25% and 33% respectively with a tax exempt amount, since the mid-1990s. On 1 January2001, a 13% flat tax on personal income took effect in Russia. Ukraine followed Russia with a 13% flat tax in 2003, which later increased to 15% in 2007. Slovakia introduced a 19% flat tax on most taxes (that is, on corporate and personal income, for VAT etc., almost without exceptions) in 2004; Romania introduced a 16% flat tax on personal income and corporate profit on January 1 2005. Macedonia introduced a 12% flat tax on personal income and corporate profit on January 1 2007 and promised to cut it to 10% in 2008. Albania will be implementing a 10% flat tax from 2008.
In the United States, while the Federal income tax is progressive, five states — Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania — tax household incomes at a single rate, ranging from 3% (Illinois) to 5.3% (Massachusetts). Pennsylvania even has a pure flat tax with no zero-bracket amount.
Greece (25%) and Croatia are planning to introduce flat taxes. Paul Kirchhof, who was suggested as the next Finance minister of Germany in 2005, proposed introducing a flat tax rate of 25% in Germany as early as 2001, which sparked widespread controversy. Some claim the German tax system is the most complex one in the world.
On 27 September 2005, the Dutch Council of Economic Advisors recommended a high flat rate of 40% for income tax in the Netherlands. Some deductions would be allowed, and persons over 65 years of age would be taxed at a lower rate.
In the United States, proposals for a flat tax at the federal level have emerged repeatedly in recent decades during various political debates. Jerry Brown, former Democratic Governor of California, made the adoption of a flat tax part of his platform when running for President of the United States in 1992. At the time, rival Democratic candidate Tom Harkin ridiculed the proposal as having originated with the "Flat Earth Society". Four years later, Republican candidate Steve Forbes proposed a similar idea as part of his core platform. Although neither captured his party's nomination, their proposals prompted widespread debate about the current U.S. income tax system.
Flat tax plans that are presently being advanced in the United States also seek to redefine "sources of income"; current progressive taxes count interest, dividends and capital gains as income, for example, while Steve Forbes's variant of the flat tax would apply to wages only.
In 2005 Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, stated he had a plan to implement a flat tax in Washington, D.C.. This version is one flat rate of 15% on all earned income. Unearned income (in particular capital gains) would be exempt. His plan also calls for an exemption of $30,000 per family and $25,000 for singles. Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott stated he supports it and would add a $5,000 credit for first time home buyers and exemptions for out of town businesses. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton's position seems unclear, however DC mayor Anthony Williams has stated he is "open" to the idea.
Flat taxes have also been considered in the United Kingdom by the Conservative Party. However, it has been roundly rejected by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer for Britain's ruling Labour Party, who said that it was "An idea that they say is sweeping the world, well sweeping Estonia, well a wing of the neo-conservatives in Estonia", and criticised it thus: "The millionaire to pay exactly the same tax rate as the young nurse, the home help, the worker on the minimum wage".
Flat tax proposals differ in how they define and measure what is subject to tax.
While campaigning for the American presidency in 1996 and 2000, Steve Forbes called for replacing the income tax by a tax at the flat rate of 17% of consumption, defined as income minus savings, in excess of an amount determined by the type and size of the household. For example, the exempt amount for a family of four would be $42,000 per year.
Modified flat taxes have been proposed which would allow deductions for a very few items, while still eliminating the vast majority of existing deductions. Charitable deductions and home mortgage interest are the most discussed exceptions, as these are popular with voters and often used.
For example, let the flat rate be 20%, and let the deductions be $20,000 per adult and $7,000 per dependent. Under such a system, a family of four making $54,000 a year would owe no tax. A family of four making $74,000 a year would owe tax amounting to 0.2(74,000-54,000) = $4,000, as under a flat tax with deductions. But families of four earning less than $54,000 per year would owe a "negative" amount of tax (that is, it would receive money from the government). E.g., if it earned $34,000 a year, it would receive a check for $4,000.
The NIT is intended to replace not just the USA's income tax, but also many benefits low income American households receive, such as food stamps and Medicaid. The NIT is designed to avoid the welfare trap—effective high marginal tax rates arising from the rules reducing benefits as market income rises. An objection to the NIT is that it is welfare without a work requirement. Those who would owe negative tax would be receiving a form of welfare without having to make a try to obtain employment. This is essentially a moral objection based on the Puritan work ethic; the advocates of negative tax agree that this would happen, but do not consider it a problem. Another objection is that the NIT subsidizes industries employing low cost labor, but this objection can also be made against current systems of benefits for the working poor.
In an article titled The flat-tax revolution, dated April 14, 2005, The Economist argued as follows: If the goals are to reduce corporate welfare and to enable household tax returns to fit on a postcard, then a true flat tax best achieves those goals. The flat rate would be applied to all taxable income and profits without exception or exemption. It could be argued that under such an arrangement, no one is subject to a preferential or "unfair" tax treatment. No industry receives special treatment, large households are not advantaged at the expense of small ones, etc. Moreover, the cost of tax filing for citizens and the cost of tax administration for the government would be further reduced, as under a true flat tax only businesses and the self-employed would need to interact with the tax authorities.