For millennia, markets have not flourished without the help of the state. Without regulations and government support, the nineteenth-century English cloth-makers and Portuguese winemakers whom the economist David Ricardo made famous in his theory of comparative advantage would have never attained the scale necessary to drive international trade. Most economists rightly emphasize the role of the state in providing public goods and correcting market failures, but they often neglect the history of how markets came into being in the first place. The invisible hand of the market depended on the heavier hand of the state.
The state requires something simple to perform its multiple roles: revenue. It takes money to build roads and ports, to provide education for the young and health care for the sick, to finance the basic research that is the wellspring of all progress, and to staff the bureaucracies that keep societies and economies in motion. No successful market can survive without the underpinnings of a strong, functioning state.
That simple truth is being forgotten today. In the United States, total tax revenues paid to all levels of government shrank by close to four percent of national income over the last two decades, from about 32 percent in 1999 to approximately 28 percent today, a decline unique in modern history among wealthy nations. The direct consequences of this shift are clear: crumbling infrastructure, a slowing pace of innovation, a diminishing rate of growth, booming inequality, shorter life expectancy, and a sense of despair among large parts of the population. These consequences add up to something much larger: a threat to the sustainability of democracy and the global market economy.
This drop in the government’s share of national income is in part the result of conscious choices. In recent decades, lawmakers in Washington—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in many other Western countries—have embraced a form of fundamentalism, according to which taxes are a hindrance to economic growth. Meanwhile, the rise of international tax competition and the growth
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