A flat tax (short for flat-rate tax) is a tax system with a constant marginal rate, usually applied to individual or corporate income. A true flat tax would be a proportional tax, but implementations are often progressive and sometimes regressive depending on deductions and exemptions in the tax base. There are various tax systems that are labeled "flat tax" even though they are significantly different.
Flat tax proposals differ in how the subject of the tax is defined.
True flat-rate income taxEdit
A true flat-rate tax is a system of taxation where one tax rate is applied to all personal income with no deductions.
Marginal flat taxEdit
Where deductions are allowed, a 'flat tax' is a progressive tax with the special characteristic that, above the maximum deduction, the marginal rate on all further income is constant. Such a tax is said to be marginally flat above that point. The difference between a true flat tax and a marginally flat tax can be reconciled by recognizing that the latter simply excludes certain types of income from being defined as taxable income; hence, both kinds of tax are flat on taxable income.
Flat tax with limited deductionsEdit
Modified flat taxes have been proposed which would allow deductions for a very few items, while still eliminating the vast majority of existing deductions. Charitable deductions and home mortgage interest are the most discussed examples of deductions that would be retained, as these deductions are popular with voters and are often used. Another common theme is a single, large, fixed deduction. This large fixed deduction would compensate for the elimination of various existing deductions and would simplify taxes, having the side-effect that many (mostly low income) households will not have to file tax returns.
Hall–Rabushka flat taxEdit
Designed by economists at the Hoover Institution, Hall–Rabushka is a flat tax on consumption. Principally, Hall–Rabushka accomplishes a consumption tax effect by taxing income and then excluding investment. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka have consulted extensively in designing the flat tax systems in Eastern Europe.
Negative income taxEdit
The negative income tax (NIT), which Milton Friedman proposed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, is a type of flat tax. The basic idea is the same as a flat tax with personal deductions, except that when deductions exceed income, the taxable income is allowed to become negative rather than being set to zero. The flat tax rate is then applied to the resulting "negative income," resulting in a "negative income tax" that the government would owe to the household—unlike the usual "positive" income tax, which the household owes the government.
For example, let the flat rate be 20%, and let the deductions be $20,000 per adult and $7,000 per dependent. Under such a system, a family of four making $54,000 a year would owe no tax. A family of four making $74,000 a year would owe tax amounting to 0.20 × (74,000 − 54,000) = $4,000, as would be the case under a flat tax system with deductions. Families of four earning less than $54,000 per year, however, would experience a "negative" amount of tax (that is, the family would receive money from the government instead of paying to the government). For example, if the family earned $34,000 a year, it would receive a check for $4,000. The NIT is intended to replace not just the USA's income tax, but also many benefits low income American households receive, such as food stamps and Medicaid. The NIT is designed to avoid the welfare trap—effective high marginal tax rates arising from the rules reducing benefits as market income rises. An objection to the NIT is that it is welfare without a work requirement. Those who would owe negative tax would be receiving a form of welfare without having to make an effort to obtain employment. Another objection is that the NIT subsidizes industries employing low-cost labor, but this objection can also be made against current systems of benefits for the working poor.
Capped flat taxEdit
A capped flat tax is one in which income is taxed at a flat rate until a specified cap amount is reached. For example, the United States Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax is 6.2% of gross compensation up to a limit (in 2019, up to $132,900 of earnings, for a maximum tax of $8239.80). This cap has the effect of turning a nominally flat tax into a regressive tax.
Requirements for a fully defined schemaEdit
In devising a flat tax system, several recurring issues must be enumerated, principally with deductions and the identification of when money is earned.
Defining when income occursEdit
Since a central tenet of the flat tax is to minimize the compartmentalization of incomes into myriad special or sheltered cases, a vexing problem is deciding when income occurs. This is demonstrated by the taxation of interest income and stock dividends. The shareholders own the company and so the company's profits belong to them. If a company is taxed on its profits, then the funds paid out as dividends have already been taxed. It's a debatable question if they should subsequently be treated as income to the shareholders and thus subject to further tax. A similar issue arises in deciding if interest paid on loans should be deductible from the taxable income since that interest is in-turn taxed as income to the loan provider. There is no universally agreed answer to what is fair. For example, in the United States, dividends are not deductible but mortgage interest is deductible. Thus a Flat Tax proposal is not fully defined until it differentiates new untaxed income from a pass-through of already taxed income.
Taxes, in addition to providing revenue, can be potent instruments of policy. For example, it is common for governments to encourage social policy such as home insulation or low income housing with tax credits rather than constituting a ministry to implement these policies. In a flat tax system with limited deductions such policy administration, mechanisms are curtailed. In addition to social policy, flat taxes can remove tools for adjusting economic policy as well. For example, in the United States, short-term capital gains are taxed at a higher rate than long-term gains as means to promote long-term investment horizons and damp speculative fluctuation. Thus, if one assumes that government should be active in policy decisions such as this, then claims that flat taxes are cheaper/simpler to administer than others are incomplete until they factor in costs for alternative policy administration.
In general, the question of how to eliminate deductions is fundamental to the flat tax design; deductions dramatically affect the effective "flatness" in the tax rate. Perhaps the single biggest necessary deduction is for business expenses. If businesses were not allowed to deduct expenses, businesses with a profit margin below the flat tax rate could never earn any money since the tax on revenues would always exceed the earnings. For example, grocery stores typically earn pennies on every dollar of revenue; they could not pay a tax rate of 25% on revenues unless their markup exceeded 25%. Thus, corporations must be able to deduct operating expenses even if individual citizens cannot. A practical dilemma now arises as to identifying what is an expense for a business. For example, if a peanut butter producer purchases a jar manufacturer, is that an expense (since they have to purchase jars somehow) or a sheltering of their income through investment? Flat tax systems can differ greatly in how they accommodate such gray areas. For example, the "9-9-9" flat tax proposal would allow businesses to deduct purchases but not labor costs. (This effectively taxes labor-intensive industrial revenue at a higher rate.) How deductions are implemented will dramatically change the effective total tax, and thus the flatness of the tax. Thus, a flat tax proposal is not fully defined unless the proposal includes a differentiation between deductible and non-deductible expenses.
Diminishing marginal utilityEdit
Flat tax benefits higher income brackets progressively due to decline in marginal value. For example, if a flat tax system has a large per-citizen deductible (such as the "Armey" scheme below), then it is a progressive tax. As a result, the term Flat Tax is actually a shorthand for the more proper marginally flat tax.
Administration and enforcementEdit
One type of flat tax would be imposed on all income once; at the source of the income. Hall and Rabushka (1995) includes a proposed amendment to the U.S. Internal Revenue Code that would implement the variant of the flat tax they advocate. This amendment, only a few pages long, would replace hundreds of pages of statutory language (although most statutory language in taxation statutes is not directed at specifying graduated tax rates).
As it now stands, the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is over several million words long, and contains many loopholes, deductions, and exemptions which, advocates of flat taxes claim, render the collection of taxes and the enforcement of tax law complicated and inefficient.
It is further argued that current tax law slows economic growth by distorting economic incentives, and by allowing, even encouraging, tax avoidance. With a flat tax, there are fewer incentives than in the current system to create tax shelters, and to engage in other forms of tax avoidance.
Flat tax critics contend that a flat tax system could be created with many loopholes, or a progressive tax system without loopholes, and that a progressive tax system could be as simple, or simpler, than a flat tax system. A simple progressive tax would also discourage tax avoidance.
Under a pure flat tax without deductions, every tax period a company would make a single payment to the government covering the taxes on the employees and the taxes on the company profit. For example, suppose that in a given year, a company called ACME earns a profit of 3 million, spends 2 million in wages, and spends 1 million on other expenses that under the tax law is taxable income to recipients, such as the receipt of stock options, bonuses, and certain executive privileges. Given a flat rate of 15%, ACME would then owe the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (3M + 2M + 1M) × 0.15 = 900,000. This payment would, in one fell swoop, settle the tax liabilities of ACME's employees as well as the corporate taxes owed by ACME. Most employees throughout the economy would never need to interact with the IRS, as all tax owed on wages, interest, dividends, royalties, etc. would be withheld at the source. The main exceptions would be employees with incomes from personal ventures. The Economist claims that such a system would reduce the number of entities required to file returns from about 130 million individuals, households, and businesses, as at present, to a mere 8 million businesses and self-employed.
However, this simplicity depends on the absence of deductions of any kind being allowed (or at least no variability in the deductions of different people). Furthermore, if income of differing types are segregated (e.g., pass-through, long term cap gains, regular income, etc.) then complications ensue. For example, if realized capital gains were subject to the flat tax, the law would require brokers and mutual funds to calculate the realized capital gain on all sales and redemption. If there were a gain, a tax equal to 15% of the amount of the gain would be withheld and sent to the IRS. If there were a loss, the amount would be reported to the IRS. The loss would offset gains, and then the IRS would settle up with taxpayers at the end of the period. Lacking deductions, this scheme cannot be used to implement economic and social policy indirectly by tax credits and thus, as noted above, the simplifications to the government's revenue collection apparatus might be offset by new government ministries required to administer those policies.
The Russian Federation is considered a prime case of the success of a flat tax; the real revenues from its Personal Income Tax rose by 25.2% in the first year after the Federation introduced a flat tax, followed by a 24.6% increase in the second year, and a 15.2% increase in the third year.
The Russian example is often used as proof of the validity of this analysis, despite an International Monetary Fund study in 2006 which found that there was no sign "of Laffer-type behavioral responses generating revenue increases from the tax cut elements of these reforms" in Russia or in other countries.
Taxes other than the income tax (for example, taxes on sales and payrolls) tend to be regressive. Hence, making the income tax flat could result in a regressive overall tax structure. Under such a structure, those with lower incomes tend to pay a higher proportion of their income in total taxes than the affluent do. The fraction of household income that is a return to capital (dividends, interest, royalties, profits of unincorporated businesses) is positively correlated with total household income. Hence a flat tax limited to wages would seem to leave the wealthy better off. Modifying the tax base can change the effects. A flat tax could be targeted at income (rather than wages), which could place the tax burden equally on all earners, including those who earn income primarily from returns on investment. Tax systems could utilize a flat sales tax to target all consumption, which can be modified with rebates or exemptions to remove regressive effects (such as the proposed Fair Tax in the U.S.).
A flat tax system and income taxes overall are not inherently border-adjustable; meaning the tax component embedded into products via taxes imposed on companies (including corporate taxes and payroll taxes) are not removed when exported to a foreign country (see Effect of taxes and subsidies on price). Taxation systems such as a sales tax or value added tax can remove the tax component when goods are exported and apply the tax component on imports. The domestic products could be at a disadvantage to foreign products (at home and abroad) that are border-adjustable, which would impact the global competitiveness of a country. However, it's possible that a flat tax system could be combined with tariffs and credits to act as border adjustments (the proposed Border Tax Equity Act in the U.S. attempts this). Implementing an income tax with a border adjustment tax credit is a violation of the World Trade Organization agreement. Tax exemptions (allowances) on low income wages, a component of most income tax systems could mitigate this issue for high labour content industries like textiles that compete Globally.
In a subsequent section, various proposals for flat tax-like schemes are discussed, these differ mainly on how they approach with the following issues of deductions, defining income, and policy implementation.
Around the worldEdit
Countries that have flat tax systemsEdit
These are countries, as well as minor jurisdictions with the autonomous power to tax, that have adopted tax systems that are commonly described in the media and the professional economics literature as a flat tax. In some countries different rates apply to different kinds of income, the main rate for personal income is shown below.
|Country or territory||Flat tax rate|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||10%|
|Greenland||36 to 44% (depending on the municipality)|
|State or province||Flat tax rate|
|Indiana||3.58 to 6.61% (depending on the county)|
|Michigan||4.25 to 6.65% (depending on the city)|
|New Hampshire||5% on dividend and interest income|
|Pennsylvania||3.07 to 6.9509% (depending on the municipality)|
|Tennessee||2% on dividend and interest income|
Jurisdictions reputed to have a flat taxEdit
- Anguilla does not have a general income tax, but since 2011 it imposes an "interim stabilisation levy" on salaries, composed of a portion paid by the employer and another paid by the employee through withholding. Each portion has a flat rate of 3%. This tax is in addition to a mandatory contribution to social security.
- The British Virgin Islands do not have a general income tax, but impose a payroll tax on salaries, composed of a portion paid by the employer and another paid by the employee through withholding. The employee portion has a flat rate of 8%. This tax is in addition to mandatory contributions to social security and national health insurance.
- Hong Kong: Some sources claim that Hong Kong has a flat tax, though its salary tax structure has several different rates ranging from 2% to 17% after deductions. Taxes are capped at 15% of gross income, so this rate is applied to upper income returns if taxes would exceed 15% of gross otherwise. Accordingly, Duncan B. Black of Media Matters for America, says "Hong Kong's 'flat tax' is better described as an 'alternative maximum tax.'"  Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute similarly notes that Hong Kong's "tax on salaries is not flat but steeply progressive." Hong Kong has, nevertheless, a flat profit tax regime.
- Saudi Arabia does not have a general income tax, but it imposes zakat (wealth tax) on the business assets of residents who are nationals of GCC countries, and income tax on the business income of residents who are not nationals of GCC countries and of nonresidents. Zakat has a flat rate of 2.5%, and income tax has a flat rate of 20%.
Countries that had a flat tax in the pastEdit
- Albania introduced a flat tax of 10% on personal income in 2008, and replaced it with two rates of 13% and 23% in 2014.
- Czech Republic introduced a flat tax of 15% on personal income in 2008, and a second higher rate of 22% in 2013.
- Grenada had a flat tax of 30% on personal income until 2014, when it introduced a second lower rate of 15%.
- Guyana had a flat tax of 30% on personal income until 2017, when it replaced it with progressive rates of 28% and 40%.
- Iceland introduced a flat tax on personal income in 2007, at a national rate of 22.75%. With the additional municipal rate, the total tax rate was up to 36%. In 2010, Iceland replaced its flat tax system with progressive national rates of 24.1% to 33%, for a combined (national and municipal) top rate of 46.28%.
- Jamaica had a flat tax of 25% on personal income until 2010, when it introduced additional higher rates of 27.5% and 33%. It restored the flat tax of 25% in 2011, and introduced a second higher rate of 30% in 2016.
- Latvia introduced a flat tax of 25% on personal income in 1997. The rate was changed to 23% in 2009, 26% in 2010, 25% in 2011, 24% in 2013, and 23% in 2015. In 2018, Latvia replaced its flat tax with progressive rates of 20%, 23% and 31.4%.
- Mauritius introduced a flat tax rate of 15% on personal income in 2009. In 2017, it introduced an additional "solidarity levy" of 5% on high income, for a combined top rate of 20%. In 2018, it introduced an additional lower rate of 10%.
- Montenegro introduced a flat tax of 15% on personal income in 2007, reduced to 12% in 2009 and 9% in 2010. It introduced a second higher rate of 15% on salaries in 2013, reduced to 13% in 2015 and 11% in 2016.
- North Macedonia introduced a flat tax of 12% on personal income in 2007, reduced to 10% in 2008. In 2019, it introduced a second higher rate of 18% on salaries, and increased the flat tax rate on investment income to 15%.
- Saint Helena introduced a flat tax of 25% on personal income in 2012, and replaced it with two rates of 26% and 31% in 2015.
- Slovakia introduced a flat tax of 19% on personal income in 2004, and a second higher rate of 25% in 2013.
- Trinidad and Tobago had a flat tax of 25% on personal income until 2017, when it introduced a second higher rate of 30%.
- Tuvalu had a flat tax of 30% on personal income until 2009, when it introduced a second lower rate of 15%.
- Ukraine introduced a flat tax of 13% on personal income in 2004, increased to 15% in 2007, and introduced a second higher rate of 17% in 2011. The second rate was increased to 20% in 2015, and the first rate was increased to 18% in 2016.
Countries considering a flat tax systemEdit
These are countries where concrete flat tax proposals are being considered by influential politicians or political parties.
- Excess burden of taxation (or more broadly deadweight loss)
- Fiscal drag (also known as Bracket creep)
- Taxable income elasticity (also known as Laffer Curve)
- Hoover Institution – Books – The Flat Tax Archived 23 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- OASDI and SSI Program Rates & Limits, United States Social Security Administration.
- Are Payroll Taxes Regressive The Economist.
- See for example the flat tax resources at idebate.org
- "When Is a Dividend Deductible?". CFO.
- "Publication 936 (2014), Home Mortgage Interest Deduction".
- For example the ENERGYSTAR tax credit
- As a recent example, transaction costs to damp speculation proposed by James Tobin, winner of the 1972 Nobel prize in economics, were recently (2009) proposed to the G20 by British PM Gordon brown as a way to prevent international currency speculation. Krugman
- "Corporations | Internal Revenue Service". www.irs.gov. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
- Herman Cain's 9-9-9 flat tax variation Archived 26 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
- E.D> Kleinbart, An analysis of Herman Cain's 999 plan, Social Science Research Center, 2011.
- The diminishing marginal utility means that the number of units of additional 'happiness' afforded by an extra unit of additional money, decreases as one spends more money. 
- Hall, Robert; Rabushka, Alvin (2007). "Appendix: A Flat-Tax Law". The Flat Tax (PDF) (2nd ed.). Hoover Press. ISBN 9780817993115.
- "The flat-tax revolution". The Economist. 14 April 2005.
- "The case for flat taxes". The Economist. 14 April 2005.
- The Flat Tax at Work in Russia: Year Three, Alvin Rabushka, Hoover Institution Public Policy Inquiry, www.russianeconomy.org, 26 April 2004
- The "Flat Tax(es)": Principles and Evidence
- Boortz, Neal; Linder, John (2006). The Fair Tax Book (Paperback ed.). Regan Books. ISBN 0-06-087549-6.
- Law on the income tax on individuals, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Republic of Abkhazia. (in Russian)
- Guide to investment, Artsakh Investment Fund, 2016.
- Worldwide Personal Tax and Immigration Guide, Ernst & Young.
- "Income and business tax act chapter 55" (PDF). Income Tax Department of Belize. Retrieved 17 February 2019.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina tax system, Foreign Investment Promotion Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 26 January 2016.
- Annual income tax return, Timor-Leste Ministry of Finance.
- Tax rates 2016/2017, Tax Agency of Greenland.
- Kyrgyzstan highlights 2018, Deloitte.
- "Law on the income tax on individuals" (in Russian). Committee on Taxes and Duties of the Republic of South Ossetia. Archived from the original on 5 November 2013. Retrieved 19 June 2017.
- A Low Flat Tax Has Been Adopted in Pridnestrovie, Alvin Rabushka, 17 August 2007.
- Turkmenistan highlights 2019, Deloitte.
- Individual income tax, Colorado General Assembly.
- Income Tax Rates, Illinois Department of Revenue.
- How to compute withholding for state and county income tax, Department of Revenue of Indiana, 1 January 2019.
- Personal income tax for residents, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
- What are the current tax rate and exemption amounts?, Michigan Department of Treasury.
- What cities impose an income tax?, Michigan Department of Treasury.
- Overview of New Hampshire taxes, Department of Revenue Administration of New Hampshire.
- Tax rate for tax year 2019, North Carolina Department of Revenue.
- Personal income tax, Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.
- EIT / PIT / LST Tax Registers, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, 15 December 2018.
- Income taxes, City of Philadelphia.
- Due date and tax rates, Department of Revenue of Tennessee.
- Tax rates, Utah State Tax Commission.
- Anguilla Highlights 2018, Deloitte.
- Interim Stabilisation Levy, Inland Revenue Department of Anguilla.
- Social Security Contributions, Anguilla Social Security Board.
- British Virgin Islands Highlights 2018, Deloitte.
- Payroll Tax, Government of the British Virgin Islands.
- Registration and contribution, British Virgin Islands Social Security Board.
- National Health Insurance, British Virgin Islands National Health Insurance.
- Daniel Mitchell. "Fixing a Broken Tax System with a Flat Tax." Capitalism Magazine, 23 April 2004.
- "GovHK: Tax Rates of Salaries Tax & Personal Assessment". 24 June 2015.
- Hong Kong Highlights 2015, Deloitte.
- Duncan B. Black. "Fund wrong on Hong Kong 'flat tax'." Media Matters, 28 February 2005. 
- Alan Reynolds. "Hong Kong's Excellent Taxes." townhall.com, but the column was syndicated. 6 June 2005. 
- Worldwide Personal Tax and Immigration Guide 2017-18, Ernst & Young, September 2017.
- The Flat Tax at Work in Albania: Year One, Alvin Rabushka, 21 January 2009.
- Albania Abandons Its Flat Tax, Alvin Rabushka, 29 December 2013.
- Flat tax roundup December 2012, Alvin Rabushka, 29 December 2012.
- Income Tax (Amendment) Order, 2014, Grenada Inland Revenue Division.
- Income Tax (Amendment) Act 2017, Parliament of Guyana.
- Iceland Comes in From the Cold With Flat Tax Revolution, The Business, 21 March 2007.
- Iceland abandons the flat tax, Alvin Rabushka, 16 March 2010.
- Income tax rates, thresholds and exemptions 2003-2018, Tax Administration Jamaica.
- Flat tax reforms, 4liberty.eu, 6 March 2013.
- Janis Grasis and Juris Bojārs, "Necessity of the introduction of the progressive income tax system: A case of Latvia", Economics, Social Sciences and Information Management, March 2015.
- Latvian parliament adopts tax reform, Tax-News, 3 August 2017.
- Alvin Rabushka. "Flat and Flatter Taxes Continue to Spread Around the Globe." 16 January 2007."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 24 June 2007.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Income Tax - Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Mauritius Revenue Authority, 1 August 2017.
- Income Tax - Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Mauritius Revenue Authority, 3 August 2018.
- The Flat Tax Spreads to Montenegro, Alvin Rabushka, 13 April 2007.
- Montenegro: Crisis tax, International Tax Review, 25 March 2015.
- Crisis tax also in 2016; the tax rate decreased to 11%, Cafe del Montenegro, 14 November 2015.
- "The lowest flat corporate and personal income tax rates." Invest Macedonia government web site. Retrieved 6 June 2007. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 February 2007. Retrieved 6 June 2007.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Macedonia: Changes in the tax legislation, Lexology, 28 December 2018.
- St. Helena Adopts a 25% Flat Tax, Alvin Rabushka, 3 November 2013.
- Income Tax Ordinance, Government of Saint Helena.
- Trinidad & Tobago's recent tax changes and regulations, Oxford Business Group.
- Income Tax Act 1992, Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute.
- Income Tax (Amendment) Act 2008, Tuvalu Legislation.
- The Flat Tax Spreads to Ukraine, Alvin Rabushka, 27 May 2003.
- Income tax rate to inch up in 2007, Kyiv Post, 5 October 2006.
- Ukraine: Overview of the new tax code, U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, 7 December 2010.
- Ukraine Tax Reform 2015, Specht & Partner.
- Ukrainian tax reform 2016 overview, Lexology, 30 December 2015.
- Berlusconi ally proposes 23 percent flat tax to stimulate Italy, Reuters, 2 February 2018.
- Steve Forbes, 2005. Flat Tax Revolution. Washington: Regnery Publishing. ISBN 0-89526-040-9
- Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, 1995 (1985). The Flat Tax. Hoover Institution Press.
- Richard Parncutt, 2006–2010. Free enterprise without poverty: Effectively progressive income tax..
- Anthony J. Evans, "Ideas and Interests: The Flat Tax" Open Republic 1(1), 2005
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- The Laffer Curve: Past, Present and Future: A detailed examination of the theory behind the Laffer curve, and many case studies of tax cuts on government revenue in the United States
- Podcast of Rabushka discussing the flat tax Alvin Rabushka discusses the flat tax with Russ Roberts on EconTalk.
- Podcast of Rabushka discussing the flat tax Alvin Rabushka discusses the flat tax on PoliTalk.
- The Flat Tax: How it Works and Why it is Good for America