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Inequality and Taxation: Evidence from the Americas on how Inequality may Influence Tax Institutions


Kenneth L. Sokoloff


University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Eric M. Zolt


University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


Tax Law Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2006
UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 08-08

Abstract:     
Tax scholars generally focus on how taxation influences inequality. In this article, we examine how inequality may influence the design and implementation of tax systems. We focus on the societies of the Americas over the 19th and 20th centuries to see how and why institutions of taxation differ across and within countries, and how they evolve over time. We examine North America and Latin America for two major reasons. First, despite the region having the most extreme inequality in the world, the tax structures of Latin America are generally recognized as among the most regressive in the world, even by developing country standards. Second, the colonization and development of the Americas constitute a natural experiment of sorts that students of economic and social development can exploit. The different circumstances meant that largely exogenous differences existed across these societies, not only in national heritage, but also in the extent of inequality.

Several salient patterns emerge. The United States and Canada (like Britain, France, Germany and even Spain) were much more inclined to tax wealth and income during their early stages of growth, and into the 20th century, than developing countries are today. Although the United States and Canadian federal governments were similar to those of their counterparts in Latin America in relying primarily on the taxation of foreign trade (overwhelmingly tariffs) and excise taxes, the greater success or inclination of state (provincial) and local governments in North America to tax wealth (primarily in the form of property or estate taxes) and income (primarily in the form of business taxes), as well as the much larger relative sizes of these sub-national governments in North America, accounted for a radical divergence in the overall structure of taxation. Tapping these progressive sources of government revenue, state and local governments in the United States and Canada, even before independence, began directing substantial resources toward public schools, improvements in infrastructure involving transportation and health, and other social programs. In contrast, the societies of Latin America, which had come to be characterized soon after initial settlement by rather extreme inequality in wealth, human capital, and political influence, tended to adopt tax structures that were significantly less progressive in incidence and manifested greater reluctance or inability to impose local taxes to fund local public investments and services. These patterns persisted well into the 20th century, indeed up to the present day.

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Date posted: May 14, 2007 ; Last revised: December 4, 2008

Suggested Citation

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. and Zolt, Eric M., Inequality and Taxation: Evidence from the Americas on how Inequality may Influence Tax Institutions. Tax Law Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, 2006; UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 08-08. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=985831

Contact Information

Kenneth L. Sokoloff
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Economics ( email )
Box 951477
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1477
United States
310-825-4249,310-825-1011 (Phone)
310-825-9528 (Fax)
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
Eric M. Zolt (Contact Author)
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )
385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States
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