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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Article 50: Theresa May tries to charm the EU but danger lies ahead

As the Prime Minister adopts a more conciliatory stance, she risks becoming caught between party and country. 

She may have been a "reluctant" one but a Remainer Theresa May was. The Prime Minister's first mission was to reassure her viscerally anti-EU party that Brexit meant Brexit. Today, by invoking Article 50, she has proved true to her word.

In this new arena, it is not Britain that has "taken back control" but the EU. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising its influence. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.

While keeping her famously regicidal party on side, May must also charm her 27 EU counterparts. In her Commons statement on Article 50, she unmistakably sought to do so. The PM spoke repeatedly of a new "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU, consciously eschewing the language of divorce. In contrast to Donald Trump, who pines for the EU's collapse, May declared that "perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe" (prompting guffaws and jeers from Tim Farron's party and the opposition benches). Indeed, at times, her statement echoed her pro-Remain campaign speech. 

Having previously argued that "no deal is better than a bad deal", the Prime Minister entirely ignored the possibility of failure (though in her letter to the EU she warned that security cooperation "would be weakened" without an agreement). And, as she has done too rarely, May acknowledged "the 48 per cent" who voted Remain. "I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others," she said. "The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view, or voted in the same way. The arguments on both side were passionate." 

Having repeatedly intoned that "we're going to make a success" of Brexit, May showed flashes of scepticism about the path ahead. She warned of negative "consequences" for the UK: "We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that." May also acknowledged that any deal would have to be followed by a "phased process of implementation" (otherwise known as transitional agreement) to prevent the UK falling over what the PM once called the "cliff-edge". 

In Brussels, such realism will be welcomed. Many diplomats have been stunned by the Brexiteers' Panglossian pronouncements, by their casual insults (think Boris Johnson's reckless war references). As the UK seeks to limit the negative "consequences" of a hard Brexit, it will need to foster far greater goodwill. Today, May embarked on that mission. But as the negotiations unfold, with the EU determined for the UK to settle a hefty divorce bill (circa £50bn) at the outset, the Prime Minister will find herself torn between party and country. Having delighted the Brexit-ultras to date, will she now risk alienating the Mail et al? The National Insurance debacle, which saw the government blink in the face of a small rebellion, was regarded by Remainers as an ominous precedent. May turned on the charm today but it will take far longer to erase the animosity and suspicion of the last nine months. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.