Origins of a Flat Tax

75 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2015

See all articles by Steven A. Bank

Steven A. Bank

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

Date Written: 1996


The flat tax has long held appeal for political reformers, with fledgling presidential candidate Ted Cruz being only one of the most recent examples. It is touted for its supposed simplicity and efficiency benefits, but debates over the flat tax often have devolved into an ideological battle over whether the income tax should be used as a method of wealth redistribution.

This article, published in 1996 at the height of a push for the flat tax led by presidential candidate Steve Forbes, offers historical perspective on the views toward progressive taxation when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. Although the rates employed in the first modern income tax were graduated, this was not considered an endorsement of a redistributive tax system. The income tax was viewed as part of a larger revenue system that was dominated by the tariff. The goal was to use the progressive income tax to counterbalance the regressive tariff tax and arrive at something closer to the proportional flat tax proposed by today’s politicians. Even under the modern revenue system dominated by graduated rate income taxation, the overall effect is only mildly progressive, if at all, in part because of regressive features elsewhere in the system, such as payroll taxes. Rather than being a flaw, this may be a design feature baked into the system at its origins.

Keywords: flat tax rate, progressive taxation, wealth redistribution

Suggested Citation

Bank, Steven A., Origins of a Flat Tax (1996). 73 Denver University Law Review 329 (1996), UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 15-06, Available at SSRN:

Steven A. Bank (Contact Author)

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

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