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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.