The problem of taxation. Part One


For the purposes of this post, I will define Space governments as the owners of space habitats.

Governments of space colonies need funding, both for protecting their citizen and for maintaining space habitats (and for several other purposes, depending on the specific policies of space colonies). The question is how Space governments would raise their funding. In this post I will discuss several proposals for taxation and non-tax revenues.

Regardless how future space communities will be organized, one thing is certain: space habitats have to be maintained and are someone’s property. The communities of the larger space habitats, like the Bernal sphere or the O’Neill cylinder, with their several thousands of inhabitants, also need security, both internal and external. So the “owners” of space habitats have to provide at least the following services: maintenance, police and national defense. Also highly desirable is the arbitration of conflicts between residents of the space habitat. But governments will almost certainly offer many other services, especially when they have to compete with other space colonies for citizens who are able to vote with their feet. Of course some space governments will only a minimal government package, with low taxes, but I guess that many more governments will offer more elaborate bundles of governmental services.

Whatever services a government of space colony offers, they need to be funded. One way to do this by imposing a head tax, a fixed amount of money to be paid per person. In fact this is a kind of “rent”, where the taxpayer pays for the “right” to live in a particular space habitat. A head tax is especially interesting for those space communities which are committed to a minimal state. But for space communities with a more elaborate government a head tax will most likely to be insufficient for funding these services, or they had to be so high, that no person is willing to pay them, or many are simply unable to pay them. Foot voting present a fundamental problem for any space government: people like to have many services to be provided by their governments, but are less willing to pay the required taxes.

Since space colonies are new comers in the global “market” of societies, the cannot rely on for example feelings of nationalism, people who strongly identify with their country are more likely to pay their taxes (with the possible sole exception of the USA). Furthermore, we can safely assume that the persons most likely to emigrate to a space colony are those who have the least attachments to their homelands. Attracting immigrants with income tax rates of 90% will not work.

Therefore we need to find other ways for funding space governments.

Canons of taxation

Adam Smith formulated in his famous work On the Wealth of Nations, four rules for levying taxes which governments should keep in mind. These rules are known as the canons of taxation.

1. Canon of equity: this is the principle that people should pay taxes according to their ability to pay and the benefits they receive from society. The logic is that people who has the greatest advantage of public services should also contribute the most of it.

2. Canon of certainty: this means that people should know in advance how much they had to pay. This is both beneficial for the government as the tax payers, since they can plan their revenue and obligations in advance.

3. Canon of convenience: taxation and the collection thereof should not place an unreasonable on the tax payer. For example taxes should be collected at the moment the tax payer receives the money.

4. Canon of economy: the collection of taxes should not be more expensive than the revenue. The lower the costs of collection, the better. If a tax is difficult to collect, less revenue can be spent on public services since more money has to be spent on collection.

For more information on the canons of taxation can be found on this site, it also discusses additional canons made by modern economists.

Tax on consumption

Many popular proposals for abolishing income taxes advocate their replacement with sale or value-added taxes. There are several problems with this idea. First of all are taxes on consumption regressive to income. Wealthier people spend as a proportion of their income less than poorer people, the wealthier a person is the more he will either save or invest his money instead of consuming. Because basics needs are (almost) the same for everyone, regardless of their income. This problem might be solved be charging a higher tax rate on luxury goods than on basic goods, however this leads to the question of what is a basic or luxury good? And who decides this?

A basic problem with consumption taxes is the collection, these taxes are collected by retailers from their costumers. Although costumers will be pay their taxes without notice, the tax officers have to check whether the retailers are collecting the right amount of revenue. It’s easy to imagine that some shopkeeper collects the sales tax from his costumers, but keeps a part of the money himself.

Another complication is in our age the on-line sale of goods and services. On line shopping is not restricted by national boundaries, so if one buy something on the Internet from abroad, how would you impose a sales tax? Recall that sales/VAT taxes are collected from retailers, not consumers, and foreign based retailers are not bound by laws of other countries.

Income taxes

Most modern countries rely nowadays on taxation on income as prime source of public revenue. A common system is Pay as you earn, which means that your employer will withhold some of your earnings and transfers it to the tax agency. Income taxes may be levied on both natural persons as on corporations.

However a common problem is unreported employment. For employers it is attractive to employ people unreported, because they will have to pay less wages for the same amount of work. Another problem we have with income taxes is the fact that these taxes are violating people’s privacy. In order to calculate how much money someone owes to the state, tax officers has to collect a huge amount of data: how much and what work one has done, what kind of assets one has and so on.

Income taxes are usually progressive or proportional. Also most countries have a lot of deductions for all kinds of stuff, mortgage interest rate, if you have a business, or whatever. Actually these deductions are more a tool for wealthy people to avoid taxes legally, if you afford to pay a good accountant you can save a lot on your tax by exploiting all kinds of loopholes. Therefore tax agencies has to spend a lot of efforts in order check whether tax deductions are filled legitimately. Because of this, we are no fan of such deduction. In our view it is better to have a low tax rate with no deduction than a higher rate with much possible deductions.

Non-tax revenues

A common definition of tax is:

A compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on workers’ income and business profits, or added to the cost of some goods, services, and transactions (Oxford dictionaries).

This helps us to understand what non-tax revenue is. However this definition is missing one essential aspect of taxation, namely that taxes are without a direct quid pro quo for the tax payer. Non-tax revenues are non-compulsory payments for goods and services provided by the government to private parties.

Many governments in the world have multiple sources of non-tax revenues. In some countries this kind of revenue is a substantial part of public funding. We should ask what kind of non-tax revenues could be utilized by the governments of Space habitats. This question is in fact equivalent to what kind of services can space colonies provide to their residents for the purpose of raising public revenue?

There is actually a very obvious service which can be provided by the governments of space habitats: land. Since they are the owners of the colony, all land contained in the habitat is their property. By renting land to interested private parties, space governments can raise revenue to fund their activities. Interestingly, by providing certain public services the governments of space colonies might increase the rental value of their land. Good school, clean streets, low crime rates are among of several factors which will attract potential emigrants from Earth.

The idea of using land rents to fund governments is not a new one. During the 19th century American economist Henry George argued in his famous work Progress and Poverty, that a so-called Land Value Tax (LVT) would not only be quite efficient but it would also raise sufficient revenue for governments to fund public services.

Because land cannot be hidden or moved out of the country, collecting a LVT is quite efficient. Most modern countries have already an elaborate registration of ground ownership, and space colonies should easily be able to keep track of who rents  what and how much land. A further advantage of the LVT is that it does not discriminate among different classes of tax payer. It does not matter whether a single person, a family or a corporation rents the land.

In a future post we will explain more about Henry George and his defense of the LVT. Here we want to state that according to George taxation on income from labour and capital is both immoral and bad for the economy. A tax on land, however, is just because land is not created by any particular human and hence belong equally to all.

Land in a Georgist sense does not only include “area”, but also the electromagnetic spectrum (used for wireless communication) (among other things). Because the EM spectrum is not made by man, it also belong equally to all. Licensing the radio spectrum will be good source of additional revenue for space colonies.

Another important source of non-tax revenue for space colonies are the sale of asteroidal resources. Asteroid mining is, we believe, is the raison d’être of space colonization and as we has argued in a previous post, it would be one of the most profitable activities of space colonists. However, terrestrial experiences has taught us that funding governments with the easy money from natural resource extraction is often detrimental for both the economy as political freedom.

Economists talk about the Dutch disease in this context. The export of a natural resource by a nation often leads to increase in public spending and to a decrease in productive activity. Instead of spending revenue from resource extraction, it would be better to put these into a sovereign wealth fund and to use the dividend from this fund for public spending. In future post we will discuss the role of sovereign wealth funds for space colony governments.

See here for part two of this post.

For more information on the land value tax:


5 thoughts on “The problem of taxation. Part One”

    1. Here in the Netherlands, people have to return their tax forms before April 1, although nowadays the Dutch revenue service fill the tax forms before so people have only to check whether this has been done correctly and to notice the revenue service the required corrections.

  1. As a fellow Scot I am quite proud of Adma Smith if he is read correctly (i.e. my way) and in the context of the times he was living.

    More importantly you have already created to my mind an artificial separation of Government and those Governed (owners and workers) – what about a more northern ideal of worker participation such as worker shareholding and shared equity new members could buy into habitats with assets (Cash, materials) or by working it off – indendured bond holders???

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