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Taxes and Hissing, Plucking Geese

The Art of Taxation

By Van Leaming
Published: 02/12/2024

Taxation, often seen as unavoidable, is more an art form than a mere financial obligation. It is a delicate balance between funding government operations and not overburdening the taxpayers.

 “The art of taxation is the art of plucking the goose so as to get the most feathers with the least hissing.” Jean-Baptiste Colbert

 This concept was famously summed up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who knew that taxation was the art of collecting the most taxes while minimizing the complaints over taxation.1 This analogy is more relevant today than ever, especially when considering the U.S. tax system’s complexity and its relationship with citizens.

 The challenge lies in the inherent tension between the need for the government to collect taxes to fund public services and the natural desire of individuals and businesses to minimize their tax liabilities. Tax policies must be designed to be fair, efficient, and effective, encouraging compliance while discouraging evasion and avoidance. This balance is precarious, and tipping too far in one direction can lead to dissatisfaction, economic distortion, or both.

The Challenge of Taxation

How to solve Unlimited Wants with Finite Means

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, serving as the Finance Minister under King Louis XIV of France, revolutionized the way we think about taxation.1 His philosophy emphasized the importance of a tax system that is as painless as possible for the taxpayer while still being effective in meeting the needs of the state. His approach underlines today’s tax policies, aiming for a system that extracts necessary resources without stifling economic growth or public contentment.

US Tax Code

The U.S. tax code, a labyrinth of rules and regulations, is a testament to the complexity and intricacy of modern taxation. It is akin to a vast, sprawling metropolis, where every street, building, and alleyway has been meticulously planned, yet can still confound those navigating it without a map. This complexity arises from the need to address a multitude of scenarios, ensuring fairness across diverse economic situations. 

Taxation in the U.S. embodies a symbiotic relationship between the government and its citizens. As with the ebb and flow of a river, so goes our taxes. Over various periods of time we have expected our government to provide more or less services and that balance of what the government provides, and what individuals provide creates the basis for the Social Contract (See our article: Social Contract). It is a partnership where individuals and businesses give up some of their freedoms and liberties to live in a society fueled by their taxes that provide the public services everyone relies on, from roads and schools to national defense and social welfare programs. This relationship requires trust and transparency, where taxpayers comply with their obligations, believing in the effective use of their contributions.

 The Art of Taxation

 The “art” of taxation, therefore, lies in crafting policies that achieve the delicate balance of maximizing revenue without discouraging economic activity or provoking widespread discontent. It is about understanding the psychology of taxpayers, employing strategies that encourage voluntary compliance, and designing a tax system that is perceived by citizens as fair and just.

 A Model used by economists called the Laffer Curve2 is a U-shaped curve that shows the relationship between tax rate and tax revenue. If you tax someone nothing and move the tax up to 1% people will continue to work and revenue will rise. As rates on taxes rise, revenue continues to rise until the rates reach a point where rates are too high. The curve begins to bend before plateauing and people begin actively avoiding paying taxes (through legal and illegal means). After it plateaus, revenue begins to drop and people are both actively avoiding taxes, and at a certain point dropping out of the workforce as it is no longer worthwhile. For example, if you were taxed at 100%, would you work? Obviously not, as there would be no reward for your labor, and the model reflects that knowing that people will stop working well before 100%.

The art of taxation is akin to weaving a complex tapestry, where each thread represents a different tax rule or policy, and the goal is to create a harmonious and functional whole. It requires a deep understanding of economics, sociology, and human psychology, like Colbert’s approach centuries ago, proving that while the tools and context may have evolved, the underlying principles of effective taxation remain timeless.

Citations

  1. Brittannica Jean Baptiste Colbert
    https://www.britannica.com/biography/#13excludeGlossary
  2. Laffer Curve
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laffer_curve

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