Walter E. Williams
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Many Wall Street occupiers are echoing the Communist Party USA's call to "Save the nation! Tax corporations! Tax the rich!" There are other Americans, on both the left and the right -- for example, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner -- who call for reductions in corporate taxes. But the University of California, Berkeley's pretend economist Robert Reich disagrees, saying, "The economy needs two whopping corporate tax cuts right now as much as someone with a serious heart condition needs Botox." Let's look at corporate taxes and ask, "Who pays them?"

Virginia has a car tax. Does the car pay the tax? In most political jurisdictions, there's a property tax. Does property pay the tax? You say: "Williams, that's lunacy. Neither a car nor property pays taxes. Only flesh-and-blood people pay taxes!" What about a corporation? As it turns out, a corporation is an artificial creation of the legal system and, as such, a legal fiction. A corporation is not a person and therefore cannot pay taxes. When tax is levied on a corporation, who pays it?

There's an entire subject area in economics, known as tax incidence, that investigates who bears the burden of a tax. It turns out that the burden of a tax is not necessarily borne by the party or entity upon whom it is levied. For example, if a sales tax is levied on a cigarette retailer, the retailer does not bear the full burden of the tax. Part of it will be shifted forward to customers in the form of higher product prices. The exact amount of the shifting depends upon market supply and demand conditions.

What about raising taxes on corporations as a means to get them to pay their "rightful share of government"? If a tax is levied on a corporation and if it is to survive, it will have one of several responses or some combination thereof. One response is to raise the price of its product, so customers share part of the burden. Another response is to lower dividends, so shareholders share a part of the burden. And a considerable portion of reduced dividend burden falls on ordinary non-rich people. According to the Tax Foundation, 19 percent of federal tax returns report dividend income but 42 percent of taxpayers older than 65 report dividend income. Therefore, it is people, not some legal fiction called a corporation, who bear the burden of the tax. Because corporations have these responses to the imposition of a tax, they are merely government tax collectors.

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Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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