In the Budget, the Rudd government chose to deliver the Howard tax cuts and to make
their savings by tightening up means testing. It represents a strategic choice
about the best way to achieve income redistribution. The question is whether it
is the right choice.
There are broadly two approaches to the vexing issue of
redistributing income. One is to have a strongly progressive income tax system
and to use it to fund universal services. The other is to have a low flat tax
system and to target government hand outs to the most needy.
Neoliberals argue the first system is inefficient. The
inefficiency arises firstly from‘churning’ – the cost of taxing people and then
giving them their own money back through universal services and payments. There
is an efficiency cost in circulating the money through lots of hands. Secondly,
they argue, a progressive income tax system distorts incentives for high income
earners. So the neoliberal’s prefered approach is to go for low taxes and
The costs of churning, however, need to be considered
against the costs of targeting.
The first and most pressing cost of targeting is the practical
challenges created by trying to decide who is in and who is out of a target
group. Targeting payments to low-income earners has
created serious poverty traps, where the poorest people face very high marginal
tax rates as they try to get back on their feet.
Secondly, targetting also creates social
divisions. Pauline Hanson swept to power on the back of downwards envy over
targeting. Middle income people struggling to make ends meet took umbrage at
what they saw as the indolence of those that fell into the target group. Where
the division crosses a racial divide, it becomes socially divisive.
Finally, there is the old saying that if
you want to have a safety net for the poor, you should never let it become a
system for the poor. When it stops being a concern of the average citizen, it
is allowed to fall into decay.
We need to reconsider the costs of targeting.
Mr Turnbull commissioned a report from an economist, Henry Ergas, which was handed to the
Opposition last July and debated by its shadow cabinet in August. It proposes moving to a single flat tax rate
New York Times “Going Dutch – how I
learned to love the European welfare system” – highlights the differences
between these two approaches, as played out in the USA and Netherlands.