Saturday, April 16, 2016

Taxes as Social Engineering

Cornell economist Robert Frank recently appeared on probably the best economics podcast on the web, EconTalk. Frank was there to discuss his recent book on the role of luck in successful folks' lives. The conversation was interesting and Frank certainly has a unique perspective. He makes some clever observations but I wasn't convinced of his conclusions. I encourage Farmer Hayek readers to listen to the podcast and check out the comments here and here for some good counterpoints to Frank's positions if you're interested.

Instead of taking Frank's comments head on, I want to discuss what seems like a background assumption he makes. Frank's overall point is that since luck (specifically good luck) plays an under-appreciated role in our success, we should favor higher taxes on the wealthy. This would provide additional funds to beleaguered governments which he asserts are low on funds for infrastructure. More importantly, though, it would ensure that the wealthy would spend less money on things that don't make "anybody any happier."

Frank provides almost nothing in terms of evidence of his claims other than his own personal experiences (see the comments linked above), but even assuming he's correct about the particular facts he lays out, there's a more fundamental problem. It might very well be that declining quality of public infrastructure has more to do with simple mismanagement of resources, rather than a lack of tax revenue. Hayek's work implies that government planners are less effective at directing resources than decentralized owners of "several property" because the former simply can't gather the necessary information to plan efficiently. (see here, page 85) Much of the information necessary for an orderly economy is tacit and ever-changing such that any amount of computing power is insufficient to create the sort of plan Frank seems to believe we need.

To be clear, it's not that markets are perfect, simply that they are more likely to be better than centralized decision makers at allocating scarce resources. The knowledge required to do so is dispersed and tacit, As Hayek puts it:
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.
I can't resist a couple of final points. Though Frank disputes it, it's pretty clear that taxes on the wealthy do affect their choice of location (here and here). Frank uses a Rawlsian ethic that is quite common in business ethics courses. However, it's not altogether obvious that Rawls' ideas can be used to justify the policies Frank favors.

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