The Real Tax Burden
More than Dollars and Cents
by Alex M. Brill and Alan Viard
When people discuss tax policy it is often to complain about it. In these discussions, the tax burden one faces is almost always assumed to be the dollars and cents of taxes paid to the government. This limited focus on tax payments threatens to obscure what many economists consider the real tax burden, which they refer to as the excess burden of taxation.
Although tax payments are burdensome to taxpayers, they provide revenue to the government, which can use them to provide benefits and services that offset the burden (if the benefits and services are provided effectively and lie within government’s legitimate role). In contrast, the excess burden discussed in this book is pure waste that provides no revenue to the government. As we explain in the upcoming pages, excess burden arises when taxes interfere with the taxpayer’s freedom to choose his or her preferred behavior. This interference with freedom is, in many ways, the real tax burden, more than the dollars and cents paid to the government.