NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Optimal Taxation with Rent-Seeking

Casey Rothschild, Florian Scheuer

NBER Working Paper No. 17035
Issued in May 2011
NBER Program(s):   PE

Recent policy proposals have suggested taxing top incomes at very high rates on the grounds that some or all of the highest wage earners are engaged in socially unproductive or counterproductive activities, such as externality imposing speculation in the financial sector. To address this, we provide a model in which agents can choose between working in a traditional sector, where private and social products coincide, and a crowdable rent-seeking sector, where some or all of earned income reflects the capture of pre-existing output rather than increased production. We characterize Pareto optimal linear and non-linear income tax systems under the assumption that the social planner cannot or does not observe whether any given individual is a traditional worker or a rent-seeker. We find that optimal marginal taxes on the highest wage earners can remain remarkably modest even if all high earners are socially unproductive rent-seekers and the government has a strong intrinsic desire for progressive redistribution. Intuitively, taxing their effort at a lower rate stimulates their rent-seeking efforts, thereby keeping private returns for other potential rent-seekers low and discouraging further entry.

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