March 5, 2017

The political Trojan Horse of “Pigouvian taxes”

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Warren Meyer used to be quite positive about the introduction of Pigouvian taxes, but recently his opinion has changed:

Here is the Wikipedia definition of a Pigovian tax:

    A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product. An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.

The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes. The classic example is a carbon tax — it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices. By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.

For years, I accepted these arguments at face value. I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax. I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left’s support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.

Soon after discovering the concept of Pigouvian taxes, I suspected that — even if the economics were sound — no human government was going to implement such a tax in the pure form: there would always be “good reasons” to make the new tax non-revenue-neutral, because once a revenue stream has been established, it’s unlikely the government will actually shut it down afterwards. I have yet to be disappointed in this expectation.

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