This Small Business Fetish Has Gone Too Far

As part of its back to basics campaign, the Abbott Government has telegraphed a small business tax package for the 2015 budget.

The plan, as far as we know, is that small business will get a tax cut of about 1.5 per cent. Big business will be left paying the standard rate of 30 per cent.

The Coalition has long had a romantic attachment to small business as a sort of moral heart of Australian private enterprise, but this policy is the worst sort of small business fetishism.

It threatens to further undermine an already complicated corporate tax system, confuses the sources of economic growth, and will distract policymakers from the much more fundamental task of opening protected areas of the economy up to competition.

Let’s take these one at a time.

It beggars belief that while the political class is banging on about the convoluted the tax code, “unfair” tax concessions, and clever corporate tax minimisation, the Government is planning to increase the complexity of the corporate tax system.

How long before we see the first exposé in Fairfax business pages about large corporates rearranging themselves to take advantage of the concessional small business rates?

The proposed small business tax cut would make the Australian corporate tax system explicitly progressive. Just as we pay a higher rate of income tax according to our wealth, firms would pay a higher rate of corporate tax depending on their size. The United States has a progressive corporate tax. Ours is flat – 30 per cent no matter what.

Now, in practice, firms don’t pay the same 30 per cent rate. As my Institute of Public Affairs colleague Sinclair Davidson has documented, all those deductions, offsets and credits mean the effective tax rate – that is, the amount of tax paid – hovers about 25 per cent. On top of this, small businesses tend to have much more variable profitability, so they tend to pay less than big business already.

Even with this caveat in mind, progressive corporate taxes are a terrible idea.

Corporate taxes are very different from income taxes. Income taxes are ultimately paid by the people whom the tax is levied upon. The money comes out of the pocket of the person who fills in the tax return. I’d prefer our income tax to be flat. But progressivity for income tax at least has its own internal logic.

Corporate taxes are very different. The cost of corporate tax is ultimately paid by someone other than the corporation – passed on to consumers through higher prices, or to shareholders, or even to the company’s employees.

After all, companies don’t pay corporate tax, people do.

It’s not at all clear why we would want to tax people who buy products from large firms more than those who buy from small firms. Unless, of course, the small business tax cut is a form of primitive industry policy to prop up small business and make it artificially competitive.

Large firms exist for a reason: to take advantage of economies of scale. Large scale manufacturing is more efficient than small scale manufacturing. Big is beautiful. All else being equal those big multinationals that everyone hates have given us cheaper products and higher living standards.

This hints at a much deeper confusion underlying the Government’s small business fetishism.Joe Hockey likes to describe small business as the “engine room of the economy”. Funnily enough Wayne Swan used to say the same thing.

Of course, no single sector is the engine room of the economy. That’s just rhetoric. (Anyway, what happened to mining?)

But the Government seems to be attributing the economic characteristics of entrepreneurship onto small business. Entrepreneurs bring new products to market, put competitive pressure on existing firms to do better, undercut monopolies, and keep not just the economy going but our living standards improving.

All those giant firms that dominate the 21st century economy – Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc – were originally garage start-ups. Why would we want to penalise the next Google for growing by taxing them at a higher rate?

Obviously by definition entrepreneurs start as small business owners. But not all small businesses are equally entrepreneurial. The defining characteristic of an entrepreneur is that they do something new. They are driven by an idea. We hear from Canberra that big business is a threat to small business. Well, entrepreneurs are a threat to big business. Paper beats rock.

If the Government wants to help entrepreneurs, it shouldn’t be looking first at the tax code. It should be looking at the sorts of things raised by the Harper review into competition policy last week. That is, the regulatory restrictions on entering markets, like the taxi or retail pharmacy markets, which hold back entrepreneurs from exerting competitive pressure on incumbent businesses.

It’s true that the small business tax cut is a lot less objectionable than the tax increases being proposed, like the bank deposit tax and an increase in the GST. Maybe it’s churlish to criticise a tax cut when the real risk is tax increases.

But the Abbott Government says it understands the importance of free enterprise and the market economy. It should want to reduce corporate tax on all firms – not just small ones.