This kind of “redistributionist” approach is always very popular, as most people are in the poorer rather than the richer category. It is easy to take from the minority to give to the majority, and there is no minority less sympathetic than the rich.
A counter argument might be that the only fair thing to do (and “fairness is something that the Liberal Democrats claim to take very seriously) would be to cut taxes for everybody if we are cutting them for some. But that kind of fairness - that everybody be treated equally no matter how wealthy they are - generally only cuts one way.
However, economists such as George Reisman make a far more startling claim: that it is tax cuts for rich business people and for corporations that are in the long-term interests of low and middle income wage earners; more so, in fact, than tax cuts aimed directly at the poor themselves.
The reason that redistribution looks so attractive is because one tends to think of redistribution in terms of individual sums being transferred from a rich person to a poor person; and there can be little doubt that £1,000 is more valuable to a poor person than a rich person. But it does not follow that £100 billion is worth more in the hands of poor people overall than in the hands of rich people overall.
The problem is that “most people tend to think of themselves as members of the class of wage earners rather than separate individual wages earners, and to think of their interests as indistinguishable from the interests of other wage earners.”
In fact, while it is more in my interests that I have £1,000 than that Richard Branson does, it is no more valuable to me that a poor man in Liverpool has that £1,000 than Mr. Branson. And it is far more likely to serve my interests that a few rich people have £100 billion than huge numbers of poor people, even if £1,000 of that £100 billion ends up in my hands. The reason for this is that poor people spend a greater proportion of their money on consumption, and are more likely to consume than to invest additional sums. As Nick Clegg said in a recent interview with The Times, "give tax cuts to the better off [and] they will just save them. You have to give [tax cuts] to people on lower incomes who will transfer them into consumption on food and fuel.”
This is ceertainly true and is entirely predictable: those on the breadline would be happy for the opportunity to buy new shoes, while those who already own a yacht are free to invest extra money in their business. This is especially true for businesses themselves: business taxes leach away the money that would either be invested in improving productivity or would be paid out in the profits that attract further investment.
There is a point here that Reisman does not fully draw out, but which we can recognise today after a decade of Labour economic mismanagement. Money in the hands of the poor would create greater wealth in the short term, as a result of a consumer boom. But these consumer booms are unsustainable: buying more clothes and electronic goods does not make their production significantly more efficient. Investment makes them more productive, but this requires an investment boom. In fact, during the past decade the consumer boom has been accompanied by a dangerously low and shrinking savings rate: the West has saved almost nothing. Consequently, productivity has not risen as it should have done, which is one reason why real wages for less skilled workers (which are set by their productivity and thus by the investment in them and in the tools that they use) has not risen. Simply taking the money that would be invested in businesses and giving it to others to consume is “eating the seed corn.”
By comparison, “A tax reduction on businessmen and capitalists will promote capital accumulation, far, far more than a tax reduction on the mass of the individual wage earner's fellow wage earners. The average businessman and capitalist will save and invest the taxes he no longer has to pay, in far greater proportion than would the average wage earner, [and the businessman] will be induced to introduce more improvements in products and methods of production, which are also a major cause of capital accumulation…” In addition, “cutting the taxes of businessmen and capitalists [will] significantly … raise the demand for labor and … reduce or eliminate unemployment”. The result of increased innovation will be to enhance “the ability of upstart new firms to grow rapidly and thus to challenge old, established firms.”
The reason that Reisman’s argument is so challenging is that it seems to suggest that tax cuts for the poor are not in their own best interests. This isn’t mere sophistry. If productivity does not rise, real wages cannot rise. All “labour” can do is fight with “capital” and “land” for the share of wealth. This seems to be the be-all-and-end-all solution for redistributionists, who argue that the poor can only benefit at the expense of the rich. This would be true in a static economic system. But they forget that economies are (or at least should be) dynamic. The route to prosperity is through economic growth: “The average standard of living would double in a single generation if economic progress at a rate of just 3 percent a year could be achieved. Such economic progress would also mean a halving of the average wage earner's tax burden in the same period of time — if government spending per capita in real terms were held fixed.”
Consequently, the long-term prosperity of the average worker is best served by capitalists who invest for their own benefit. In seeking to further increase their own profits, capitalists invest extra money in improving productivity, which they do by buying new and better plant machinery, "upskilling" their staff and employing new and better business systems. Improvements to productivity in turn push up real wages and so benefit labourers far more than tax cuts on their own wages would. If Government can avoid the urge to “share the proceeds of growth” then wage earners will see their taxes fall anyway – not in absolute terms, but as a proportion of their rising incomes.
If there is a problem in Reisman's plan, it is that in advocating this policy of easing taxes on business and high incomes first, he overlooks the political economy of the 21st Century. No matter how correct he may be about the long term economic effects, it would be impossible to implement such tax cuts in the face of the vast majority of voters who will understandably ask why their taxes are not being cut while those of £billion businesses and rich oligarchs are. What is needed, therefore, is a sort of liberal realism that recognises that lowly paid workers, who form the bulk of the electorate, will want to see some of the short-term gain that their richer peers will enjoy as they wait for the longer term growth-benefits to kick in. One might suggest that a little honey today will keep them sweet until tomorrow’s jam arrives.
Thus if the Liberal Democrats really want to improve living standards for those on low incomes, we need to look not just to redistribution but to cutting the overall level of taxation in the economy. And we must do this by reducing taxes on businesses and among those wealthy enough to invest as well as those who will feel the benefits most in the short term. This is not about larding the rich for their own sake; it is about recognising a fundamental lesson of liberalism – that we all benefit from one another’s success – while also understanding that it is investment, not consumption, that makes future prosperity possible.
Reisman concludes that
Of course, in a further display of their ignorance and blindness, members of the Left will undoubtedly characterize the line of argument I've presented in this article as the "trickle-down theory." There is nothing trickle-down about it. There is only the fact that capital accumulation and economic progress depend on saving and innovation and that these in turn depend on the freedom to make high profits and accumulate great wealth. The only alternative to improvement for all, through economic progress achieved in this way, is the futile attempt of some men to gain at the expense of others by means of looting and plundering. This, the loot-and-plunder theory, is the alternative advocated by the redistributionist critics…. It is time to supplant it with ... sound economic theory….