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Theories of Distributive Justice and Limitations on Taxation: What Rawls Demands from Tax Systems

25 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2004  

Linda Sugin

Fordham University School of Law


In The Myth of Ownership, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel offer a devastating critique of traditional tax policy analysis and its partial justice orientation, and demand that taxation be evaluated as part of a broader overall scheme of economic justice. This paper, presented as part of Fordham Law School's conference on Rawls and the Law, considers how to approach tax policy in light of their analysis, and how to understand what John Rawls' theory of justice requires of a system of taxation under that approach. It argues that the connection between taxes and justice is less specific than we might hope, and that theories of justice generally do not endorse particular tax policies, but are more likely to preclude them. Rather than searching in theories of justice for required precepts of taxation, we might more fruitfully ask what constraints, if any, a particular theory of justice imposes on the tax system. By applying this approach to Rawls' ideas about taxation, his endorsement of a flat consumption-based tax, which is quite puzzling in light of much of what Rawls wrote about economic justice, can be better understood. If we read Rawls' discussion of economic justice to offer limitations, rather than mandates, then a wide variety of tax systems may be part of a just Rawlsian society, and Rawls' first principle of justice, which concerns political rights, imposes more significant limitations on systems of taxation than does his second principle, even though the second principle explicitly concerns economic rights.

Suggested Citation

Sugin, Linda, Theories of Distributive Justice and Limitations on Taxation: What Rawls Demands from Tax Systems. Fordham Law Review, Vol. 72, 2004. Available at SSRN:

Linda Sugin (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

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