Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Tax complexity has been a major concern since the modern income tax was enacted. Reformers have routinely seized on complexity to justify their favored change, whether it be eliminating progressivity or the capital gains preference. More recently, consumption tax advocates have claimed that such taxes are inherently less complex than income taxes. A number of scholars have attempted to test these claims. However, such scholarship has largely been theoretical and speculative, as we do not know what form such a tax might take. Rather than imagine a hypothetical income-based consumption tax and speculate as to its implementation, in this article I study an actual tax of this type, which has existed for over 2,500 years: biblical tithing. Tithing can be seen either as a simple, flat-rate income tax, where the definition of income is limited to agricultural produce, or as a simple income-based consumption tax, where consumption is measured indirectly via the proxy of income (i.e., produce) and returns to capital are excluded from the tax base.
This study reveals that any income-based tax, whether a true income tax or an income-based consumption tax, will necessarily be complex. Questions of income inclusion, tax avoidance, and timing are unavoidable, and those issues alone generate significant complexity. This conclusion has implications both for the reform of our current income tax and for those who seek to replace it. If complexity exists in this fairly straight-forward tax system, it will certainly arise in any of the more sophisticated income tax or income-based consumption tax systems currently under discussion. I do not mean to suggest that simplification efforts are futile. Rather, I would caution that the impulse to effect radical changes to the current tax system in the name of simplification may, like the proverbial fourth marriage, reflect a triumph of hope over experience.