Don Boudreaux writes:
I do not grant that government’s decision to refrain from taking X‘s money means that government subsidizes X. The tax-exemption might be unwise policy, and it might be unfair (by some plausible guideposts) – and it almost certainly gives the tax-exempt organizations an advantage that they would otherwise not possess.
But tax-exemption does not involve taking money from Y and giving it to X. That fact is vital.
I’m not so sure.
The reason I’m not so sure is that “tax-exemption … almost certainly gives the tax-exempt organizations an advantage that they would otherwise not possess.” In other words, X‘s revenues are greater than they would be absent X’s tax-exempt status. By the same token, Y‘s revenues are less than they would be absent X‘s tax-exempt status. It may be true that X’s greater revenues do not accrue as profits, but they do accrue in some form. For example, in the defense-analysis industry, with which I am familiar, the employees of tax-exempt organizations — known as federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs)– enjoy more luxurious offices; higher compensation, mainly in the form of benefits (e.g., more vacation time, larger company contributions to health insurance premiums, better retirement plans); and more stable employment (because FFRDCs operate under long-term, sole-source contracts that tend to be renewed decade after decade). The benefits that accrue to X‘s employees because of X‘s tax-exempt status are, in effect, a subsidy paid by Y‘s shareholders and employees.
Another way to look at it is this: In a balanced-budget world, the cost of government would be defrayed entirely by tax revenues. Given a government of a certain size, the exemption of some firms from paying taxes requires that other firms’ shareholders and employees pay higher taxes. That is a subsidy, if I ever saw one.
Going one step further, consider the proper function of government, which is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of citizens. It is none of government’s business what a citizen does when his life, liberty, and property are secure, as long as he doesn’t use it to impinge on the lives, liberty, and property of others. Whether a person makes a billion dollars a year or one dollar a year is really not the government’s concern, nor is it the government’s concern whether a person lives in a castle or a cardboard box. Such things, if they are of concern to anyone other than the person in question, are of concern to that person’s family, friends, neighbors, private charities, and so on.
It follows that government has no proper claim on the amount of income or wealth that a person acquires through the legitimate use of his liberty (such as it is). Warren Buffet and Bill Gates owe the government no more than a panhandler. Buffet and Gates simply have made better use of the protection afforded them by government, at least with respect to the acquisition of income and wealth.
The proper level of taxation, therefore, is that which defrays the cost of the governmental functions which protect the lives, liberty, and property of citizens: defense, courts, and law-enforcement. The cost of those functions is about $3,000 a year for every person aged 21 and older.* Everyone (21 and older) whose annual tax bill includes more than $3,000 for “liberty” services is subsidizing everyone (21 and older) whose annual tax bill for the same things is less than $3,000. All taxes for other services, regardless of who pays them, are forms of theft.**
* The annual cost of national defense, the courts, and law-enforcement agencies is about $600 billion. That amount, divided by 200 million (the approximate number of persons in the United States aged 21 and older) yields an annual per-person cost of $3,000. I exclude persons under 21 because most of them still depend on adults for their subsistence, and have not yet advanced to the stage of making the most of the protections afforded by government.
** Some taxes underwrite regulatory functions, which are counterproductive. Some taxes underwrite services that are used by varying percentages of the populace (e.g., parks, highways), which (a) burdens those taxpayers who do not use the services in question, (b) subsidizes those taxpayers who do use the services in question, and (c) substitutes inefficient, unresponsive political-bureaucratic entities for more efficient, more responsive private firms. A large proportion of taxes (especially for Social Security and Medicare) simply take money from workers and give it to non-workers — an open-and-shut case of theft.