Taxes and Subsidies: Incentives and Disincentives

Like it or not the world is driven by economic activity. Nothing happens unless people buy something, be that a product, service or employees. These economic activities vary in importance to those procuring and supplying them, with the balance point between supply and demand coming when the price for that product, service or employee is agreed between producer and purchaser. However governments have their own idea of how much of each product, service or employee should be procured and they attempt to control this via a number of mechanisms:

  • Banning that activity completely (e.g. selling of drugs that it determines only it should have the monopoly on);
  • Banning that activity as best it can (e.g. sex work);
  • Setting the price for that product, service or employee. This is very dangerous as it moves the economic equilibrium point and always has adverse and unintended consequences (e.g. national minimum wage, energy prices, train fares, etc.);
  • Taxing and subsidising.

When the state doesn’t want an activity to happen, but recognises it cannot successfully ban that activity, then it taxes it. Examples are the ‘sin’ taxes on tobacco and alcohol (the latter I’ve blogged about here). When it does want an activity to happen, but recognises it cannot do that itself, then it subsidises that activity. An example is agriculture.

However, although it is widely recognised that if you tax an activity then you create a disincentive to undertake that activity, the government then taxes anything that it sees happening in sufficient quantity for it to become a useful revenue stream if taxed. The unintended consequence of this is that less of that activity happens (or less of it happens legitimately). Similarly the government identifies activities that people cannot afford to do by themselves (usually due to their excessively high tax burden) and creates subsidies (called grants, tax credits, benefits, etc.) to assist those people.

So let’s take a look at what the government taxes, that is what it is (often unintentionally disincentivising):

  • Employment: Employer’s National Insurance is a tax on employing people, thereby creating disincentives for businesses to employ people until they really have to. Rates vary from 0% to 13.8%;
  • Work: Income Tax and Employee’s National Insurance are taxes on employees, making it costly to work (legitimately). Income Tax rates vary from 0% to 45% (recently reduced from 50%) and National Insurance rates vary from 0% to 12% – maximum of both is now 47% (45% Income Tax + 2% NIC);
  • Spending: VAT is a tax on spending. Spending is the way that we purchase items we need (or just want) which drives the economy and employs people in profitable activity. We are taxed on virtually everything we buy, except a small subset of items that the government deems as essential, such as some food, books and children’s clothing, but not gas, electricity, petrol, diesel, women’s sanitary protection products, incontinence pants, etc. (rates vary from 5% to 20%);
  • Insurance: Insurance Premium Tax is levied on all insurance premiums (6% or 20%);
  • Travel: Air Passenger Duty is levied on each segment that you fly from the UK (ranges from £13 to £188 per flight);
  • Profitable business: Corporation tax punishes the profitable business and creates incentives for companies to employee accounting schemes to minimise their corporation tax burden. Rates vary from 20% to 25%;
  • Earnings from a profitable business: Dividends are taxed with rates from 10% to 37.5%;
  • Digging oil out of the ground: Oil production companies are subject to several separate tax regimes to punish them for their ‘super-profits’. These taxes include Petroleum Revenue Tax (50% on value of oil extracted), Ring Fence Corporation Tax (disallows offsetting losses made elsewhere, unlike for all other companies) and the Supplementary Charge (75%);
  • Pensions: saving for your retirement is free of tax in certain closely-prescribed circumstances – step outside of those criteria and face tax rates from 20% to 55%;
  • Moving house: Stamp duty is levied on buying houses (!) with rates varying from 1% to 7%;
  • Death: Inheritance Tax is levied on dying. So if you haven’t managed to spend the lot before you expire then they take another swipe at whatever you’ve built up for your family (rate is 40%). Obviously government cannot disincentivise dying, but instead creates a market for exploiting loopholes that mainly the rich alone can afford to utilise.

Conversely (and often perversely) government creates schemes that subsidise many activities, again this may be unintentional:

  • Unemployment: I have written on this extensively elsewhere, but even Beveridge, the architect of the modern welfare state, warned against excessive or lengthy unemployment ‘benefits’;
  • Farming: the idiocy of the Common Agricultural Policy is well-documented by many already;
  • Under-performing or failing businesses: the history of nationalising or subsidising failing businesses, in the vain attempt to somehow turn them around by managing them with civil servants, has proven that this approach simply destroys more value than it creates;
  • Marriage: the latest moronic social engineering plan from the Conservatives. ‘Nuff said;
  • Children: while Child Benefit in itself probably isn’t enough to incentivise anyone to have children, the plethora of services provided to parents does create a system which taxes those who chose not to have children more and subsidises those who do have children. More social engineering.

As can be seen from the few examples above the UK has created a taxation system that creates some unfortunate economic incentives and disincentives. These all distort the market, whether they intend to or not. That we discourage employment and encourage unemployment alone should make us question the sanity of this system; and surely the continually high level of unemployment is evidence of this. Similarly taxing successful businesses and subsidising unsuccessful ones can only encourage the wrong behaviour (witness the legal use of tax avoidance to minimise corporation tax and the subsequent idiotic moral outrage at this natural consequence).

While we let government distort the market in the way it thinks benefits its electorate* then the economy will never operate freely, employing all, feeding all, benefiting all. We will forever be slaves to these idiots, few of which have ever run a successful business.

*note use of word ‘electorate’ – the fools who vote them into power – not citizens, the poor schmucks who pay for them and their ideas.

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