Sometime during this 117th U.S. Congress, the long-proposed “Fair Tax” will likely receive its first-ever floor vote in the House. A national sales tax, it would replace not only personal and corporate income taxes, but Social Security, Medicare, estate and gift taxes too.
Though every tax scheme has its pitfalls and moral failings, the net impact of a switch from the income tax to a sales tax could be positive for the citizenry and the economy. While entrenched interests and the opportunity for misleading political attacks on Fair Tax proponents make its adoption in the near-term a long shot, it’s a concept worth keeping on the country’s collective back burner.
Fair Tax Basics
HR25, the “Fair Tax Act of 2023,” advances a national sales tax “on the use or consumption in the United States of taxable property or services in lieu of the current income taxes, payroll taxes, and estate and gift taxes.” The Internal Revenue Service would be sent into history’s dustbin, while a much smaller federal tax bureaucracy would administer the sales tax.
The federal tax rate would be a whopping 30%. The bill and many FairTax advocates describe it a 23% “tax-inclusive” rate, which means they arrive at by expressing the tax as a percent of the total outlay—including the tax itself.
While there’s actually some financial logic to that methodology when comparing it to income taxes, Fair Tax proponents should abandon the practice. Everyday Americans are fully accustomed to state and local sales taxes being expressed as a percent of the purchase price, and will never grasp the arcane reasoning that leads to 23%. They should emphasize the fact that paychecks would have no more federal income tax or payroll tax deductions and make the case for the 30% rate.
Opponents are quick to decry sales taxes’ lack of progressiveness. Setting aside the question of whether it’s actually just for governments to confiscate a higher proportion of money from those who earn or spend more of it, the proposed Fair Tax does include a “prebate”—money sent to every household that effectively negates federal sales tax for spending up to the poverty level.
For 2023, it would be about $6,900 a year for a family of four. It should be noted that the least prosperous Americans currently receive money through the income tax system, via “refundable” credits. If Congress wants to replace that largesse, it will have to create new entitlements.
Ridding America of The Income Tax’s Worst Traits
A federal sales tax would addresses the worst evils of the income tax, which include:
Complexity. Even for the financially astute, the income tax code is mind-numbing. Congress and the IRS create a wickedly complex maze, and then—with threats of penalties and jail time—put the burden of navigating it on people and businesses.
Wasted time and money. Americans spent an estimated 6.5 billion hours and more than $200 billion to comply with IRS filing and reporting requirements in 2022. While tax preparation fees and effort are top-of-mind, the income tax is a weed that drains time, money and energy throughout our economy—from all the record-keeping required by financial institutions, to the legions of lawyers and financial advisors straining to find loopholes for corporate and individual clients.
Intrusiveness. The income tax requires individuals and businesses to disclose an enormous amount of information—and to be prepared to share much more if the IRS comes knocking. With a sales tax, the government doesn’t need to know about your choice of charities, your marital status, how many nights you slept in your vacation home, how much alimony you paid, which investments you sold and how much you paid for them.