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Theoretically speaking, developed countries like the US could abolish all forms of taxation (short of taxes on imports, where applicable) and simply print as much money as necessary for the government to operate. This is already partially happening with the expansionary monetary policy. Such a move would save tens of billions of dollars as you could effectively shut down the IRS and save the country billions of hours in wasted productivity.

Has such an approach already been considered? If so, is it at least somewhat feasible in theory?

  • This may be better answered by Economics.SE, but I'm not sure it's strictly off-topic here – Kamil Drakari Oct 1 '18 at 19:31
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    Curiously, this was asked and answered on Worldbuilding.SE. – yannis Oct 1 '18 at 19:34
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    Paper money has to represent something, and unless that something changes in value or quantity it is always worth the same amount of money. If you print a $10 bill to buy $10 worth of stuff, you now have $10 worth of stuff. If you print another $10 bill, another $10 worth of stuff doesn't just appear, so the new bill is worthless. – Giter Oct 1 '18 at 20:11
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    @Giter: no, the new bill is worth $5, it's not worthless. if that repeats, eventually people will avoid the currency altogether. – dandavis Oct 1 '18 at 21:14
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    @JonathanReez Not enough for a full answer, but Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is an active branch of economics which claims a government can do exactly what you claim... under certain conditions. – eclipz905 Oct 2 '18 at 14:05
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Society has been there and done that. It fails every time to exactly the extent it's tried (e.g. Zimbabwe currency)

The inflation aspect is by no means the only drawback.

Consider that printing money means that somebody now has a big pile of printed money. Whoever gets to spend that money gets to do so before it is inflated. As well, they get to spend that money without having to do anything beyond printing it. Or convincing the printer to give it to them. This represents a huge moral hazard. The temptation to hand stacks of fresh new bills to people to get favors is overpowering. The temptation to obtain those stacks of fresh new bills is also overpowering. It typically means that the people who control the printing press also control the country. In every detail.

For a while. Until the point that people can't manage to get enough bills to get food.

If something cannot continue then it will not continue. The only question is how it will stop. Some typical examples of how it stops are revolution, civil war, and war with neighbor countries.

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  1. First problem. Due to the reserve fraction of 10%, 90% of the money printing benefit would go to private banks rather than the federal government. That's rather easily fixable. Increase the reserve fraction to 100%. Then the government gets all the seigniorage value. This is called full reserve banking.

    • A side effect of full reserve banking is that banks stop paying interest on demand deposits and instead charge maintenance fees. An option to address this is a government system where the government borrows the money from the banks and pays interest.
  2. Next problem. It's not enough money. The United States M2 measure increased only about $1 trillion over the last year. The federal budget was about $4 trillion over the same time period.

  3. Printing money has its own costs. It's unclear though how much cost there would be.

  4. Now, if you ask why can't they just print another $3 trillion over and above what is needed for M2, the answer is that it wouldn't work. That's where the inflation issue arises. Inflation has two subproblems:

    1. It is an implicit tax on those with savings. It makes savings worth less. But savings finance investment as well as things like retirement, so most countries want to encourage savings.
    2. Inflation is partially a problem of expectations. When people and businesses expect inflation, then they adjust their demands for things like salaries and sales to included the expected inflation. But that creates inflation. This means that inflation increases tend to be chronic. If something creates 5% inflation, it may well create 5% inflation every year. But then if you do the same thing that created the original 5% inflation, that's another 5% inflation or 10%. If you do that every year, inflation goes 5%, 10%, 15%, 21% (because inflation is multiplicative), 27%, 33%, 40%, etc.

To repeat, they don't do it because

  1. It takes away banking profits such that ever bank would take a loss under the current way of doing business.
  2. There's not enough money to pay the whole budget. An optimistic estimate is 25% and that may be high.
  3. If they print too much money, it causes inflation.

One might argue that bankers are all a bunch of fat cats and deserve to make less money, but this proposal doesn't just make them less profitable. They quite clearly become unprofitable. Banks will either go out of business or change how they do business. Free checking will be replaced with fee-based checking. That will affect everyone with bank accounts, not just rich bankers.

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    The 10% reserve fraction is specific to U.S. law and can be varied by law. Also, even when figuratively says that they are "printing money" that usually really means that the money supply (the vast majority of which is not represented by paper currency or coins) is increased, not literally printing more paper currency or minting more coins. Another problem that the value of money is usually at first order equal to money supply divided by good supply, and the problem that often leads to a hyperinflation is a declining supply of goods which more money won't help except when inflation is modest. – ohwilleke Oct 1 '18 at 22:44
  • It is my understanding that seigniorage has nothing to do with fractional reserve banking. Seigniorage is the benefit of fiat money being in practice more valuable than the resources used in issuing it: paper and ink or the effort of somebody at the central bank typing the digits into a computer. Reserves are just money held just in case it becomes needed. – H2ONaCl Oct 3 '18 at 23:13
  • You said "it's not enough money' but the actual amount issued last year has nothing to do with the forward looking proposal. The increase in M2 is not the same as the government issuance of money. The private sector helps to determine M2. The "monetary base" is a better measure of government issuance or look at the central bank's liabilities. – H2ONaCl Oct 3 '18 at 23:34
  • In a 10% fractional reserve system, banks create 90% of the money and get the benefit of doing so. I call that benefit seigniorage. You can call it something else if you want. The actual M2 growth last year in a fractional reserve system is a reasonable estimate of the potential monetary base growth without inflation under full reserve banking in future years. If we only looked at monetary base growth, that number would be much worse, as the M2 is monetary base plus other financial instruments. The presumption here is that the government could possibly take over M2. – Brythan Oct 3 '18 at 23:55
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Only taxing one thing, whatever it is, doesn't produce a very good tax base. People can avoid doing the thing that's taxed and do more of things that aren't taxed. This not only distorts the economy badly but it also means that the tax rate has to be fairly high to compensate for legal tax avoidance, creating even more of an incentive to avoid the tax.

This might work for a broad consumption tax like a VAT because it's hard to avoid consuming things. It kind of works for property taxes, but tends to seriously penalize people or businesses that require more property (such as farming). There's no way it could work for this kind of tax.

This tax is particularly bad to implement at such a high rate. It is effectively a tax on saving money so you can avoid this tax simply by not saving money. Not saving money is very easy. You can either consume wealth as quickly as you earn it or hold other kinds of investment assets instead of money. So there would be an immediate and rapid death spiral -- as the rate goes up, there's less and less saving, hence less and less revenue, hence a need for a higher and higher rate, and so on.

If you think about it, there's really no need to save money. For many people, they spend most of their income very close to the time they earn it, so they are already avoiding this tax. Wealthier people tend to hold most of their money in non-cash forms such as real estate, boats, airplanes, stocks, and so on. So they would already be avoiding this tax. Who would be paying it?

Quickly, the government-issued currency would simply be abandoned. The government would be printing money that nobody would accept, as happened in Zimbabwe.

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