Given that today’s fashionable economic ideas tend to become tomorrow’s government policies, it’s not looking good for the future of free-market capitalism. Consider the current bestselling book in America, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a hugely important work that has already become the defining post-crisis manifesto. Its ground-breaking research on historic patterns of wealth ownership is second to none, but its conclusions are horrendously flawed.
Its author, the French economist Thomas Piketty, advocates an 80pc income tax rate for those earning more than £300,000 a year. For good measure, he also floats a range of other even worse ideas, including an internationally coordinated progressive wealth tax, hitting anybody with at least £165,000 in assets and peaking at a crippling 10pc a year on billionaires, a windfall tax on private capital, a dose of inflation and a war on inherited wealth. It’s the kind of hardcore message to warm the hearts of your average British socialist, circa 1976 – and yet it is being embraced as the latest, cutting-edge thinking.
Even more fantastically, this assault on private property and wages would supposedly have no meaningful negative side-effects. Piketty writes that “the evidence suggests that a rate [of tax] of the order of 80pc on incomes over $500,000 or $1m a year would not reduce the growth of the US economy but would, in fact, distribute the fruits of growth more widely while imposing reasonable limits on economically useless behaviour”. Instead of being laughed out of town, Piketty is being treated with the sort of adulation usually reserved for a rock star.
At this point, I could cite some of the many peer-reviewed studies that show — unlike the author’s own research — how high marginal tax rates reduce work and effort, remind readers that eating capital is the best way to impoverish a nation, reduce productivity growth and keep wages down, or point out that societies where the most successful entrepreneurs are rewarded by the state seizing their assets don’t prosper.
Instead, let me consider Piketty’s big idea, which he believes justifies his policies of “confiscatory” taxation – to him, a positive term. He believes that in a peacetime free-market economy, the returns on capital — dividends, interest, rents and capital gains — inevitably grow faster than the overall economy. The owners of capital will therefore end up grabbing an ever-greater slice of the pie, leaving workers with less and less.
- I could not agree more. To read the full article, and review/ debate, please visit the article here.