Can Tax Cuts Increase the Size of Government?
Posted: 10 May 2005
Recent U.S. tax cuts, to the extent that they involved a principled, long-term policy view, seem to have been aimed at shrinking the size of government. The idea apparently was to force eventual spending discipline, even (or perhaps especially) with respect to Social Security and Medicare, by turning reduced tax revenues into a political fact on the ground that would be difficult to reverse. In fact, however, the idea that the tax cuts would make the government smaller seems to have rested on spending illusion, or confusion between the actual size of government, in terms of its allocative and distributional effects, and the observed dollar flows that are denominated 'taxes' and 'spending'. Given the long-term budget constraint, which holds that government inflows and outlays must ultimately be equal in present value, and the huge preexisting fiscal imbalance, the tax cuts are likely to be paid for, in the main, through some combination of future tax increases and cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (Other government spending cuts, relative to the case where the tax cuts were not enacted, are likely as well, but cannot contribute nearly enough.) To the extent that the 2001 through 2003 tax cuts lead to future tax increases, the combined effect is likely to make the government bigger both allocatively and distributionally. To the extent that Social Security and Medicare spending bear the brunt, the government still gets larger in the sense of increasing redistribution from younger to older generations, although Medicare cuts might decrease the size of government allocatively.
Keywords: Taxation, government
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