There’s an idea going around that it’s a bad thing when poor people don’t pay taxes. This has manifested itself in the infamous Mitt Romney ‘47%’ gaffe and also in the debate here in the UK about contributory benefits, the personal allowance and whether people should be getting benefits out of a system they haven’t paid into. The central argument is that, if you don’t pay taxes, you’re going to want to increase the provision of public services – all public services – because you get a share of whatever scant benefits there might be from the increase, and you don’t have to pay for any of it.
There are a couple of standard objections to this view. One is that poor people do pay a lot of taxes, in the form of social insurance contributions, consumption taxes and so on. Another says that, even if people don’t pay taxes one year, they might pay taxes the next; certainly, many of the 47% has paid income tax recently, and might again soon. There’s also a related life-cycle issue – many people not paying taxes are retirees or students, who have paid or will pay taxes at some other time in their life.
Then there's the argument that social insurance is just that - insurance - and just like with, say, home insurance, if some people get back much more than they paid in, it's a feature rather than a bug.
I’m going to explore a few other objections, though.
Firstly, it confuses average and marginal costs and benefits. If I’m going to vote for more spending, the cost to me of that spending isn’t the taxes I already pay – it’s the extra tax I’d pay to finance that spending. I might not pay any tax now, but if the government increases spending, it might pay for that by lowering tax thresholds so that I will pay tax in the future, or raise one of the kinds of taxes that I do pay, like VAT. Whether or not I pay taxes now has little to do with whether or not I will pay the cost of a rise in spending.
Equally, the myth of the squeezed middle (more on this later) allows many people to argue for ‘free’ benefits – not because the middle class doesn’t pay taxes, but because at the margin any tax rise is going to fall on the rich. This is obvious in the USA, where the Democrats are pushing for higher taxes on the rich and only on the rich, and consequently the alternative of spending cuts looks comparatively unpalatable.*
Secondly, the simple fact of whether or not I’ve paid into the system doesn’t really matter that much. If I paid £1 in income tax last year, it’s not going to make me dramatically more averse to increased spending than if I didn’t pay anything. As a result, even if the tax rate paid by the poor was important, the 47% statistic would still be meaningless. What’s important is the average tax rate paid by the poor. And that becomes an argument against any and all redistribution, which no-one** advocates (even flat-tax advocates think that benefits should be progressive).
Thirdly, while people are self-interested voters at the margin, on average they are actually quite civic-minded. Bryan Caplan's excellent article, The Myth of the Rational Voter, was widely derided for calling voters idiots, but one of the interesting things it pointed out is that voters don't tend to vote for the things that will be best for them. People vote for farm subsidies not because they benefit them but because they (mistakenly) think that it will be good for society. Equally, even if poor people not paying tax had a marginal effect on how likely they were to vote for extra benefits, it wouldn't be the only or even the most important deciding factor. They might still vote against it if they thought that was what was best for society.
Summary: if anyone ever tries to argue that taxing the poor is vital for preserving democracy, tell them they're an idiot.
*This argument is starting to look a bit politically slanted. Of course, from a Rawlsian/utilitarian perspective, if you can get benefits to the poor and middle class solely by taxing the rich, maybe that’s a great thing.
**Apologies to any anarcho-capitalists I may have offended by this statement. I love you really.