The Capital Levy in Theory and Practice
47 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2007 Last revised: 19 Jun 2021
Date Written: September 1989
A capital levy is a one-time tax on all wealth holders with the goal of retiring public debt. This paper reconsiders the historical debate over the capital levy in a contingent capital taxation framework. This shows how in theory the imposition of a levy can be welfare improving when adopted to redress debt problems created by special circumstances, even if its nonrecurrence cannot be guaranteed. If the contingencies in response to which the levy is imposed are fully anticipated, independently verifiable and not under government control, then saving and investment should not fall following the imposition of the levy, nor should the government find it more difficult to raise revenues subsequently. In practice, serious problems stand in the way of implementation. A capital levy has profound distribution consequences. Property owners are sure to resist its adoption. In a democratic society, their objections are guaranteed to cause delay. This provides an opportunity for capital flight, reducing the prospective yield, and allows the special circumstances providing the justification for the levy to recede in the past. The only successful levies occur in cases like post-World War II Japan, where important elements of the democratic process are suppressed and where the fact that the levy was imposed by an outside power minimized the negative impact on the reputation of subsequent sovereign governments.
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