Raising taxes on small businesses in and of itself won’t help the rate of small-business creation — but it’s actually unlikely to hurt it that much, either. (And interestingly, taxes paid by an employer in New York are actually higher than those paid in Norway.) What would help would be a much stronger social safety net, so that someone who starts a company doesn’t need to fear a life of poverty in the event that she fails. Encouraging small businesses necessarily means encouraging failure — but the cost of failure is very high, in the US. Instead, we spend far too much time worrying about tax rates on the successful.


There is precious little evidence to suggest that our low taxes have done much for entrepreneurs—or even for the economy as a whole. “It’s actually quite hard to say how tax policy affects the economy,” says Joel Slemrod, a University of Michigan professor who served on the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan. Slemrod says there is no statistical evidence to prove that low taxes result in economic prosperity. Some of the most prosperous countries—for instance, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and, yes, Norway—also have some of the highest taxes. Norway, which in 2009 had the world’s highest per-capita income, avoided the brunt of the financial crisis: From 2006 to 2009, its economy grew nearly 3 percent. The American economy grew less than one-tenth of a percent during the same period. Meanwhile, countries with some of the lowest taxes in Europe, like Ireland, Iceland, and Estonia, have suffered profoundly. The first two nearly went bankrupt; Estonia, the darling of antitax groups like the Cato Institute, currently has an unemployment rate of 16 percent. Its economy shrank 14 percent in 2009.


You can’t blame all of Estonia’s problems on its low taxes, of course — the currency issue (Norway’s kroner is floating, while Estonia just joined the euro) is also huge. And Norway does have all that oil revenue, too. But looking at Estonia’s housing bubble and bust, one sees an economy where people are striving to get rich quick, in contrast to Norway’s culture of simply trying to be as happy and successful as possible. Which turns out to be extremely successful.

Felix Salmon is an Audit contributor. He's also the finance blogger for Reuters; this post can also be found at Reuters.com.