Enslaving the Beachcomber: Some Thoughts on the Liberty Objections to Endowment Taxation

23 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2005

See all articles by Kirk J. Stark

Kirk J. Stark

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


Conventional wisdom among contemporary liberal egalitarians is that taxing individuals according to their endowment or earnings capacity would constitute an unacceptable intrusion on basic human liberties. In effect, the argument goes, such a scheme would result in a type of slavery - in order to pay the tax, people would be forced to accept jobs commensurate with their identified levels of endowment. For example, John Rawls argued that an endowment tax would force the more able into those occupations in which earnings were high enough for them to pay off the tax; it would interfere with their liberty to conduct their life within the scope of the principles of justice.

This Article examines the Rawlsian objection to endowment taxes and considers whether it can be distinguished from the libertarian claim, advanced most famously by Robert Nozick, that taxation of earnings is unjust because it is on a par with forced labor. The Article's principal claim is that unless one assigns greater moral value to non-market activities than to market activities (a position arguably in tension with the liberal principle of neutrality as between alternative visions of the good life), there is no difference in kind or in degree between the interference with liberty occasioned by the two types of taxes. It follows from this analysis that if one accepts Rawls's argument regarding endowment taxes, one must also accept Nozick's argument regarding wage taxes. This conclusion presents the liberal egalitarian with a dilemma: she must either (1) embrace endowment taxes as a moral ideal, rejecting the liberty concerns expressed by Rawls and others, or (2) join Nozick in renouncing the ordinary taxation of earnings, a move that would substantially weaken her commitment to egalitarian outcomes.

The purpose of the Article is not to resolve this dilemma, but rather to expose some of the tensions inherent in the liberal egalitarian framework and to suggest that consideration of these tensions is necessary to the development of a more satisfactory liberal egalitarian position on questions of taxation and distributive justice. Toward that end, an alternative framework is suggested for assessing the liberty cost of taxation. It is contended that all taxes - whether on income, consumption, wealth, endowment or other tax bases - interfere with individuals' pursuit of the good life. For any given level of revenue to be raised through taxation, the recognition and protection of a liberty interest in one type of activity will simply increase the liberty costs associated with unprotected activities. The liberal instinct to shield non-market activity from taxation does not reduce the liberty cost of taxation, but rather merely shifts it to those whose conceptions of the good life involve the use of markets. This is not to suggest that a concern for personal autonomy should not inform our choice of tax institutions, but rather that the question may ultimately be one of distribution. That is, in fashioning a tax system, how best can we allocate the benefit of being free from taxation's inevitable interference with personal autonomy?

Keywords: Taxation, Liberty, Political Theory

JEL Classification: D31, D63, H20

Suggested Citation

Stark, Kirk J., Enslaving the Beachcomber: Some Thoughts on the Liberty Objections to Endowment Taxation. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=650301

Kirk J. Stark (Contact Author)

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

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