Theories of Tax Justice: Ruminations on the Benefit, Partnership, and Ability-to-Pay Principles
53 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2005
This essay considers the benefit, partnership, and ability to pay principles of tax justice with respect to their foundations and how they bear (if at all) on such issues as the role and size of government, the choice of the tax base, and the structure of rates and exemptions. The method of examination is primarily by way of critique of what I call the new benefit principle, or NBP, which has recently been invoked by some commentators. The broad thesis of this essay is that the NBP - as well as its sibling, the partnership theory of (income) taxation - is little more than a rhetorical counter to street Libertarian talk that assumes one's entitlement to market outcomes. The NBP and the partnership theory do not withstand analysis at the level of entitlement theory, and they do not prescribe a politically liberal taxing and spending role for government. Specifically, the NBP and, to a lesser extent, the partnership theory, tell us very little about what the tax system should look like, and they certainly do not favor a Schanz-Haig-Simons income tax base, or, for that matter, any personal tax base with progressive features. Neither can be implemented as a substantive tax fairness principle. In contrast, an objective ability-to-pay principle is compatible with leading social justice theories and clearly favors a realization income tax base. I also argue, contrary to Murphy & Nagel and Kaplow & Shavell, that the ability-to-pay principle, as a norm of tax fairness, has a legitimate (if not pre-emptive) role in tax theory.
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