- Ryan J. TonkinRyan J. TonkinDepartment of Philosophy, University of Victoria
Taxation is perhaps the most important mechanism for realizing a conception of distributive justice. It also confronts citizens with the coercive power of the state in an immediate way. Yet there exists no widely accepted theory of tax justice. This is partly explained by the protean character of modern taxation: taxes allocate resources, create incentives, fund public goods, address collective action problems, and more. As well, claims about fair taxation always implicate technical and practical considerations alongside their normative dimensions. Historically, experts in the technical and practical (such as economists and policymakers) have more readily engaged this tangle of considerations than experts in normative theory (such as philosophers), although that is beginning to change. The results of the engagement are fragmentary and often inconsistent. However, the fragments can be roughly sorted into two broad approaches to questions of tax justice.
The first approach assesses taxation as an institutional interference with a pretax allocation of resource entitlements. It conceives of the collective tax burden as a social invoice that must be fairly distributed across that pretax allocation. Thus, various principles of distribution follow: the tax burden should be distributed according to ability to pay, or benefits received, and so on. But the second approach argues that the project of fairly distributing the tax burden is misconceived for two reasons. First, it is myopic in its assessment of particular taxes without considering how those taxes fit within the broader institutional arrangement. Second, it presumes an existing allocation of resource entitlements with which taxes interfere. In a modern state, however, taxes are antecedent to, and so already presumed by, any allocation of entitlements. Instead of attending to a fair distribution of an illusory tax burden, the second approach conceives of taxation as constructive social architecture. Accordingly, it holds that taxes should be assessed in terms of their contribution to a distribution that satisfies the appropriate principles of justice, whatever those principles may be.
- Political Institutions
- Political Philosophy