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France tried to ‘soak the rich’ – They said ‘Au revoir’

Previously, I’ve written about how taxes are incentives and if you change the incentives you change behavior. Any forecast of tax revenues which doesn’t take this into account is worthless. I gave the example of the luxury tax, enacted by Congress in 1991. ‘The rich’ the tax was aimed at changed their behavior in response to the tax and it brought in next to no revenue.

This week’s example comes from France. As Noah Smith – always interesting, even when I think he’s wrong – writes for Bloomberg, “The country has experimented with both wealth taxes and very high top income taxes, with disappointing results.”

France had a wealth tax from 1982 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 2017. The top rate was between 1.5% and 1.8%, with the total tax rate on fortunes larger than 13 million euros ($14.3 million) hovering at about 1.4%. This is much less than the 6% top rate proposed by Warren (not to mention the 8% proposed by her fellow candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders), but it’s close to the 2% rate Warren would impose on fortunes larger than $50 million.

The wealth tax might have generated social solidarity, but as a practical matter it was a disappointment. The revenue it raised was rather paltry; only a few billion euros at its peak, or about 1% of France’s total revenue from all taxes. At least 10,000 wealthy people left the country to avoid paying the tax; most moved to neighboring Belgium, which has a large French-speaking population. When these individuals left, France lost not only their wealth tax revenue but their income taxes and other taxes as well. French economist Eric Pichet estimates that this ended up costing the French government almost twice as much revenue as the total yielded by the wealth tax. When President Emmanuel Macron ended the wealth tax in 2017, it was viewed mostly as a symbolic move.

Another French experiment was the so-called supertax, a 75% levy on incomes of more than 1 million euros. Introduced by socialist President François Hollande in 2012, the supertax added to the exodus of wealthy individuals, most notably actor Gerard Depardieu and Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Star soccer players threatened to go on strike, and there was fear that France would become a wasteland for entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the supertax raised much less money than even the wealth tax had — only 160 million euros in 2014. The unpopular tax was repealed two years after its adoption.

France’s experiments with taxing the wealthy at very high rates didn’t raise much money and didn’t prove politically sustainable. The flight of wealthy individuals from the country probably helped reduce inequality on paper, but it’s not clear that their departure left France better off.

As the French might say, and with sincere apologies to my French teacher, les taxes sont des incitations et si vous modifiez les incitations, vous modifiez le comportement.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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