Taxing Cash

Benshalom, Ilan

The cash economy enables, or at least significantly simplifies, many tax evasion schemes. This is not surprising; after all, cash transactions can go unreported and therefore remain concealed from both regulators and creditors. The tax collector operates as both a creditor and a regulator, which means that cash transactions impose negative externalities on tax collection and administration. These externalities could be corrected through a relatively simple Pigovian tax that would be imposed, prior to cash-mediated transactions, every time cash was withdrawn from the financial system. Tax authorities would not collect any tax when cash would be deposited.

This article argues that such a cash tax would make tax collection both easier and more accurate. If a cash tax were imposed, most of the legitimate economy would shift to non-cash exchange methods. In such a setting, cash transactions would be effectively limited to two categories: low-value transactions and transactions that benefit from the anonymity associated with cash. Transactions associated with tax evasion and other types of criminal activities likely comprise most of the latter category. Hence, because cash would comprise a relatively small portion of the formal economy’s turnover, there are good reasons to believe that cash owners operating in the underground economy would be unable to roll over most of the cash-tax burden. This means that most of the cash-tax incidence would fall on those who use cash to engage in tax evasion or other forms of unreported behaviors. Such a cash tax would therefore reduce the lack-of-tax benefit associated with cash-based tax evasion along with the inequities and inefficiencies associated with it. Furthermore, it would allow policymakers to comprehensively address the externalities associated with unreported transactions in the cash economy.


Also Published In

Columbia Journal of Tax Law

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September 29, 2015