Ryan Bourne: “Levelling the playing field” is no argument for an online sales tax

5 Aug

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Some time soon, we’ll see more automation in the fast food sector. Burger-making machines are real. Franchises such as McDonald’s have rolled out self-ordering touchscreens. It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which fast-food worker numbers collapse. In the longer-term, when the technologies become widely affordable to businesses, cost reductions from these sorts of labour-saving investments will benefit consumers through lower prices.

Not every competitor chippie, kebab shop, or burger outlet will make the transition, of course. Some will struggle under what will then become the higher cost, labour-intensive model, finding their niche in the market. Others may simply go out of business – unable to compete on price and without the ability to invest in the machinery.

Would this be a problem? Or is it simply an example of capitalism’s creative destruction? 

Imagine if the struggling companies and their employees demanded Parliament pass a “burger automation tax” under the premise of “levelling the playing field” with those companies that took the plunge. Think how dangerous supporters of consumer-led capitalism would consider it for popular price-reducing innovations to be held up as a problem. Consider how bemused we’d be if the savings in labour costs were dubbed “unfair competition,” simply because not every company realised them.

Well, we are seeing an analogous argument capture policymaking today. And, bizarrely, free-marketeers within the Conservative party are not really speaking out against the muddled thinking.

The UK government is kite-flying about an online sales tax of two per cent, or taxing online deliveries to consumers. One of the many justifications given for even considering these Luddite measures is to “level the playing field” between online retailers and the High Street, given the latter face business rates.

Here’s the problem: there already is a level playing field. Just as all businesses face the same minimum wage laws, they also face the same overall tax regime. This includes business rates – which is a tax on the rental value of commercial property, not sales.

Faced with those policy realities, businesses are free to decide how to operate and structure. Innovative online sellers such as Amazon have simply adopted business models that repudiate the need for a high fixed‐cost physical presence in expensive inner‐city areas.

Operating from out-of-town warehouses is a cost-saving business decision akin to the potential automation in fast food. To then suggest that online retailers not needing to rent high-value property is some distortion of competition that requires a corrective tax, as the Treasury reportedly believes, is just bizarre.

It’s this business decision that partially explains why online sellers can provide low prices for consumers, enhancing their welfare. The idea that adopting this model is some underhand advantage is as daft as saying that Amazon’s packaging costs are a disadvantage for it, requiring a “packaging-equivalent tax” on High Street stores’ sales.

To echo the 19th century classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat, the bricks-and-mortar retailers using this level playing field argument are akin to candlemakers petitioning the Government about the sun flooding the market with cheap light.

Now if the Government thinks that the current business rates regime is an inappropriate tax on rental values or has distortionary impacts on commercial property use (I agree, but think the impact overblown) then, by all means, they should change the law faced by all. If councils are worried about car parking charges’ impact on high street retailers, then they are within their rights to adjust them.

But let’s not talk as if it’s unfair competition when firms, faced with a tax regime, innovate to reduce costs to provide a service in a way that consumers prefer. For make no mistake, it is customers that will ultimately bear the costs of any new sales or delivery tax in the form of higher prices, especially those whose use of delivery is less responsive to price, such as in rural areas.

Of course, increasingly traditional retailers are themselves re-orienting to online, especially during Covid-19. Any cuts to business rates (to the extent they are passed through by landlords) might allow for some consumer price reductions to “compete” better with online firms for sales. But if these same traditional retailers then face a new tax on their growing online sales anyway, the Government will have given with one hand and taken with another. 

And which companies will suffer disproportionately from the new administrative burden of having to deal with an online sales tax, do you think? Will it be Amazon? Or is it more likely to be smaller companies navigating the online market for the first time?

This whole debate highlights a broader gripe I’ve had with Conservative policy thinking for some time. Conservatives used to understand the case for consumer-led markets, as extolled by Jeff Bezos in a US Congressional hearing last week. They trusted customers to make choices in their own best interests. Our revealed preferences were thought to represent us trying to maximise our wellbeing under the circumstances we face.

But increasingly MPs seem to think they know better. Sure, customers might be flocking to online retail, especially during a deadly pandemic. But what they really want, we are told, is a thriving High Street. Who you gonna believe: MPs or your lying eyes?

The idea that any business providing the same product must face the same tax and regulatory cost base to truly compete on a “level playing field” is easily dismissed. Wind and nuclear power both produce electricity. But if someone told you we needed a tax on wind power to make up for the safety costs of nuclear, you’d think they were utterly mad. So what do we think is different about retail, after we’ve decided that it’s appropriate to tax commercial property consumption?

Now perhaps the Government’s real aim is not to “levelling the playing field.” Some say a tax on online deliveries would reduce congestion – a daft argument given a van delivering to 30-40 places would cause far less traffic congestion than everyone going to stores. Some say that the Government simply needs the revenue – in which case £2 billion is a relative drop in the ocean. Our communitarian friends, with their stale 1950s vision of High Street’s somehow engendering “community,” want to pull any lever to try to preserve the town centres of yesteryear.

Yet those arguments are self-evidently absurd or futile in the face of ongoing trends. The “level playing field” line is more dangerous precisely because it sounds as if it’s pro-competition. If Conservatives really believe, however, that the role of Government is to correct for businesses finding ways to reduce their fixed costs, as if this were some unfair advantage, then they are further through the economic looking glass than I’d realised.

Daniel Hannan: What broken windows can teach the Chancellor about mending the economy

8 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Anyone can spin the spending taps open. It’s screwing them back again that is the problem. Once vast subsidies have gurgled down the plughole, it becomes almost impossible to resist demands for an extra spurt here or there. Sums that were considered colossal in February now seem, next to the hundreds of billions of pounds spent on quantitative easing and the furlough scheme, almost trivial.

Don’t get me wrong. The Coronavirus outbreak was an exceptional event that called for an exceptional response. Almost every small-government type I know acknowledged that there was a one-off case for interventions. The worry is that these interventions will turn out not to be one-offs; that, rather as happened after 1945, the electorate has come to expect a higher level of state intrusion, so the dial won’t return to where it was.

There was a practical and moral case for helping businesses through the lockdown. The practical case was that keeping a firm’s heartbeat going is cheaper, in the long run, than letting it expire and requiring a completely new business to be launched afterwards. The moral case was that the government had a duty to rescue its own victims: if an otherwise profitable enterprise, such as a pub or a theatre, was closed by law, it had a claim to compensation.

So far, so uncontroversial. But what when the restrictions are lifted? Should the state carry on supporting sectors that have been adversely affected? Should it, for example, continue to subsidise pubs or theatres, even when they are allowed to operate again, on grounds that their customers are staying away? What about sandwich shops hit by the shift to working from home – a shift that may be permanent? Or charities hit by a general drop in donations?

What of payouts that are not directly to do with the lockdown? It was striking, for example, that the clamour for more free school meals was far louder than the clamour for schools themselves to reopen in full. Demanding money on someone else’s behalf is always satisfying and, in current circumstances, the demands are hard to resist. When we are spending a hundred billion on the furlough scheme alone, who is going to cavil about £19 million for poor kids?

The dynamics of that decision illustrate, in microcosm, why demands for higher spending end up being granted. Those who called for higher spending were described as brave and principled, their opponents as selfish and stingy.

In fact, there is nothing brave about saying “Listen – hear me out on this, I know it’s controversial – we should do more to feed poor kids”. That position might be justified, but expressing it requires no courage. Indeed, by far the bravest thing I saw during the controversy was a Tweet by the kind and clever Therese Coffey, gently correcting Marcus Rashford’s claim that people might be cut off by water companies for want of means. Therese pointed out that that would be illegal, prompting a pile-on of the nastiest kind from an online mob who did not want facts to interfere with their self-righteous rage.

Few MP want to be accused of being “mean” or “heartless” (to quote the adjectives chosen by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted). They know that, however absurdly, they will be judged as if it were their own money they were trying to save, not taxpayers’.

Yet the economic facts remain. Britain’s output is down by more than a quarter. So far, the hit has been taken largely by business but, eventually, it will be felt by everyone: students, public sector workers, pensioners and, not least, those the poet calls “your children yet unborn and unbegot”. I wish it weren’t so. But we can’t defy economic gravity by intoning “Our NHS heroes deserve a pay rise!” or “Supporting the arts is an investment in the future!” or “The government needs to create more green jobs!”

Yes, fiscal loosening is appropriate in the aftermath of an economic catastrophe. Yes, it makes sense to bring forward some spending, especially on infrastructure. But the only way out of this mess is economic growth, and the way to get growth to cut taxes.

Think of it like this. The government can put more cash into circulation by spending more or by taxing less. The argument for the second is that the money will be more wisely directed by individuals on the ground than by civil servants drawing up project criteria. Britain’s immediate priority, as the furlough scheme tapers out, must be to get businesses investing and hiring. That means cutting corporation tax, stamp duty, national insurance and capital gains tax.

Why tax cuts rather than grants? Partly because grants are blunt instruments, expensive to administer and prone to unintended consequences. Mainly, though, because of what the nineteenth-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat called “ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas” – what we see and what we don’t.

Bastiat famously gave the example of broken windows. Replacing a shop window generates lots of activity: the shopkeeper pays six francs to the glazier, who can then spend that sum on new shoes, meaning that the cobbler now has more to spend and so on. Why, then, can’t a country make itself rich by hiring boys to go around smashing panes of glass? Because, Bastiat says, of the unseen costs: the shopkeeper could have invested the six francs on something more productive, the glazier had to turn down another customer to make time to fix the window and so on.

It’s an argument a ten-year-old can understand, yet we seem unable to internalise its logic. When a government takes money out of the economy to spend on, say, green jobs, it is creating unseen costs. We might regard those costs as justified in the name of environmental protection; but they are still costs. Subsidising jobs is no more a route to growth than smashing windows.

Who, though, is prepared to make that case in the current mood? Who will argue for balanced budgets and low taxes? The lockdown may be ending, but I fear our economic woes are just beginning.