Consumption Taxation in Rawls' Theory of Justice

62 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2019 Last revised: 28 Nov 2022

See all articles by David Elkins

David Elkins

Netanya College School of Law

Date Written: January 19, 2019


The question of whether income or consumption is a more appropriate tax base has a long and venerable history. One participant in the debate over the appropriate tax base, and one whose voice has attracted relatively little attention in this regard, is the philosopher John Rawls. In his monumental work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that in certain circumstances a proportional consumption tax would be preferable to a progressive income tax. This Article examines whether it is possible to justify a consumption taxation within the framework of Rawls’ overall theory of justice.

Rawls gives two reasons for advocating consumption as a tax base rather than income. The first is that a consumption tax “imposes a levy according to how much a person takes out of the common store of goods and not according to how much he contributes.” The second is that a consumption tax “treats everyone in a uniform way.” The Article considers both Rawls’ common pool argument and his uniformity argument and concludes that neither is capable of justifying proportional consumption taxation within a Rawlsian conception of justice. It goes on to consider a third argument, one that Rawls himself did not make: that consumption taxation respects autonomy and is more deferential to choice than is income taxation. However, this Kantian argument also fails. Although respect for autonomy and choice are fundamental with regard to other elements of Rawls’ theory of justice (that is, the veil of ignorance and the first principle of justice that he posits would emerge from behind the veil), they play little or no role in his conception of distributive justice.

Rawls’ theory of justice is extraordinarily complex and does not easily fit into traditional political categories. For instance, although the bedrock of his theory of distributive justice is that individuals do not deserve their social position or their natural talents and thus have no desert-based claim to their income or wealth, he is equally adamant that, at least when background institutions are just, individuals have an entitlement-based claim to the income and the wealth that their talents and good fortune are able to secure. In fact, one of the primary themes of Rawls’ entire scheme of justice is his attempt to break free of the utilitarian-libertarian dichotomy and to reconcile the concepts of deontological rights and redistribution. Writers in the field of tax theory tend to gloss over these subtleties and to apply Rawlsian concepts in a fairly superficial manner. My hope is that this Article will act as catalyst to a more comprehensive understanding of Rawls’ theory of justice in the tax theory discourse.

Keywords: Rawls, Tax, Taxation, Consumption Taxation, Income Taxation

JEL Classification: K34, H24

Suggested Citation

Elkins, David, Consumption Taxation in Rawls' Theory of Justice (January 19, 2019). 29 Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 799 (2020), Available at SSRN:

David Elkins (Contact Author)

Netanya College School of Law ( email )


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