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The great capital gains tax hoax

By Gavin Putland - posted Thursday, 15 January 2009

In light of the recent Tax and Transfer Review by the Federal Government, lobbying interests are moving to reduce capital gains taxes.

The term “capital gain” contains a deliberate contradiction: real capital doesn’t gain.

Capital, as defined by the classical economists, is a product of human effort. Land is not; its supply is fixed. When the effective demand for land increases - because population grows, or because people have more money to spend, or because public investment in infrastructure makes people willing to pay more for land in the serviced locations - there can be no compensating increase in supply; therefore, in the long term, land increases in value. But if capital increases in value for any reason, the increase induces production of more capital, which competes with the existing capital, causing values to fall again.


Therefore any gain in the value of capital is temporary; in the long term, capital depreciates due to wear-and-tear and obsolescence. An exception arises when the owners of capital are given some sort of protection from competition, like that which nature gives to the owners of land - but in that case the “capital” has been stripped of its defining economic property and has become, for economic purpose, land-like.

It follows that a so-called “capital gains tax” falls preferentially on land and land-like assets, not on true capital. So why does official terminology pretend that it is a tax on capital? To make it look bad.

Taxes on capital, including taxes on income from capital, deter the production of capital and are therefore economically destructive. But taxes on values of land, including taxes on increases in land values, cannot deter production of land, because there is no such production. Neither can they deter the productive use of land; on the contrary, by increasing the attractiveness of current income relative to accrued increases in value, they encourage owners to use their land productively (or sell it to someone who will) instead of simply holding it and waiting for its value to rise.

Therefore if governments want to encourage work and productive investment rather than parasitic speculation, they should:

  1. cut taxes on income from labour;
  2. cut taxes on capital, including those on income from capital; and
  3. raise taxes on values of land and land-like assets, including those on increases in asset values.

But of course these prescriptions are unacceptable to those who have grown rich by speculating on increases in asset values. So they obfuscate the issue by calling such increases “capital gains”, thus implying that any tax on them is a tax on capital!


Because rational policy calls for “capital gains” to be taxed more heavily than current income, the obvious response for the speculators would have been to demand that both be taxed at the same rate. Such “equal treatment” has a superficial appearance of fairness, especially to those who support income taxation in principle, and is compatible with the Haig-Simons definition of income, namely consumption plus the change in wealth.

But that wasn’t good enough for the speculators. They wanted “capital gains” to be taxed at a lower rate than current income, including labour income. Their argument had three parts. First, capital creates jobs. Never mind that all capital is produced directly or indirectly by labour, or that workers create their wages out of the marginal product of their labour (otherwise it wouldn’t be economic to employ them). And never mind that “capital gains tax” doesn’t actually target capital.

Second, because assets are purchased out of after-tax income, taxing any gain in values of those assets is double taxation. Never mind that those who complain about full taxation of “capital gains” also demand full deductibility of depreciation. And never mind that if taxation of current income and “capital gains” really were double taxation, one could solve the problem by retaining the tax on “capital gains” and abolishing the one on current income!

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First published in Prosper Australia on August 11, 2008. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Gavin R. Putland is the director of the Land Values Research Group at Prosper Australia.

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