Stamp duty versus mansion tax

Although superficially similar, high stamp duty is not a mansion tax

It seems increasingly likely that one of the measures to be announced in the budget in a couple of hours will be an increase in stamp duty to 7 per cent for properties worth over £2m. The argument seems to be that because the Conservatives will be compromising on the 50p tax – cutting it to 45p rather than scrapping it altogether – the Liberal Democrats will compromise on the mansion tax, allowing Osborne to introduce it as a new rate on an existing tax rather than new tax altogether.

Unfortunately, while the mansion tax isn't a great tax – it was sold as a proxy wealth tax, when household value isn't that great a proxy for wealth – it is still better than stamp duty. This is because it is at heart a consumption tax (you pay it for "consuming" a year's worth of £2m+ housing), whereas stamp duty is a transaction tax.

As the Mirrlees review on taxation explained (volume II, page 151):

Any tax on transactions will reduce expected welfare by discouraging mutually beneficial trades. Welfare is maximized when assets are owned by the people who place the highest value on them. Taxing transactions will affect who owns an asset, and so can disrupt the efficient pattern of ownership.

The value of a good or service is determined by the flow of benefits that are derived from owning it. So a consumption tax can be levied either on the purchase price of the good or service when it is first sold or on the flow of benefits over time. A transactions tax does not do this and it always seems preferable to tax the benefits directly...

Stamp duty on house transactions, for example, taxes according to the number of times a house changes hands over its lifetime. Houses vary considerably in the number of times they are traded, but there is no good economic argument for taxing more-frequently-traded housing more. Worse still, a tax on transactions reduces the incentive to trade in housing and leads to less efficient usage of the housing stock. A tax on the consumption value of housing would make sense... but a stamp duty on transactions does not.

It is a basic tenet of capitalism that, in a free market, transactions are good. By definition, if they are entered into, they make both parties better off – and stamp duty, by imposing a cost on it, means that otherwise beneficial exchanges may not occur.

This is, incidentally, the basis of the argument against a financial transactions tax; the comeback is that financial transactions occur in a broken market, and so cannot be expected to be mutually beneficial – and certainly not socially beneficial.

The Mirrlees report ended up recommending that stamp duty be abolished in its entirity, but instead the chancellor will be putting an even greater proportion of the UK's fiscal burden on it. Given it is being used as a proxy version of a proxy version of an efficient tax, it is not surprising that it has problems.

Mansion: The house allegedly bought by Saif Gaddafi in Hampstead, London (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Free movement isn't free: the truth about EU immigration

The UK does not need to leave the single market to restrict European migration - it already can.

In the Brext negotiations, the government has unashamedly prioritised immigration control over the economy. The UK must leave the single market, ministers say, in order to restrict free movement. For decades, they lament, European immigration has been "uncontrolled", making it impossible to meet the government's target of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

It's worth noting that non-EU immigration alone (which ministers can limit) remains more than ten times this level (owing to the economic benefits). But more importantly, liberals and conservatives alike talk of "free movement" as if it is entirely free - it isn't.

Though EU citizens are initially permitted to live in any member state, after three months they must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have "sufficient resources" (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be "a burden on the benefits system". Far from being unconditional, then, the right to free movement is highly qualified.

The irony is that the supposedly immigration-averse UK has never enforced these conditions. Even under Theresa May, the Home Office judged that the cost of recording entry and exit dates was too high. Since most EU migrants are employed (and contribute significantly more in taxes than they do in benefits), there was no economic incentive to do so.

For some Brexiteers, of course, a job is not adequate grounds for an immigrant to remain. But even beyond implementing existing law, there is potential for further reform of free movement - even within the single market.

As Nick Clegg recently noted, shortly after the referendum, "a number of senior EU figures" were exploring a possible trade-off: "a commitment by the UK to pursue the least economically disruptive Brexit by maintaining participation in the single market and customs union, in return for a commitment to the reform of freedom of movement, including an 'emergency brake' on unusually high levels of intra-EU immigration." Liechtenstein, a member of the single market, has recently imposed quotas on EU migrants.

Yet with some exceptions, these facts are rarely heard in British political debate. Many Labour MPs, like their Conservative counterparts, support single market withdrawal to end free movement. The unheard truth that it isn't "free" could yet lead the UK to commit an avoidable act of economic self-harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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