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To Confuse and Protect: Taxes and Consumer Protection

Nussim, Jacob

Imperfect information may cause rationally bounded individuals to make consistent mistakes. This paper focuses on potential misperception of prices. Consumers may underestimate the full price of tax-exclusive prices and hence overconsume goods and services. Countries with a significant consumption tax base (for example, a value-added tax) regulate tax-inclusive price presentation to overcome consumers’ biases and thus to protect consumers. The United States is considering the adoption of a federal consumption tax base and therefore may be similarly expected to regulate tax-inclusive price presentation. Based on a theory of optimal taxation, this paper explains why tax-exclusive rather than tax-inclusive prices can be socially desirable. To the extent that tax-exclusive pricing confuses consumers who then ignore non-indicated taxes and overconsume, consumers may be better off. The argument is counterintuitive, in particular for consumer protection advocates: confusion is actually good for consumers. The paper investigates several potential justifications for tax-inclusive pricing, and shows that a reasonably accepted rationale is rather limited in scope and unrelated to consumer-protection motivations. Finally, the paper extends the analysis to income-based taxes and to misleading non-tax (marketing) practices.


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Columbia Journal of Tax Law

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September 28, 2015