The topic of fiscal politics includes taxation and spending, budget balances and debt levels, and crises and the politics of austerity. The discussion often focuses on how some variable—such as the international environment, or political institutions—constrains “politics” in this realm. Almost omnipresent concerns about endogeneity run through this research. While this is a “big” policy area that deserves study, tracing causation is difficult.
Anna M. Meyerrose, Thomas Edward Flores, and Irfan Nooruddin
The end of the Cold War, heralded as the ideological triumph of (Western) liberal democracy, was accompanied by an electoral boom and historically high levels of economic development. More recently, however, democratic progress has stalled, populism has been on the rise, and a number of democracies around the world are either backsliding or failing entirely. What explains this contemporary crisis of democracy despite conditions theorized to promote democratic success? Research on democratization and democracy promotion tends to focus predominantly on elections. Although necessary for democracy, free and fair elections are more effective at promoting democratic progress when they are held in states with strong institutions, such as those that can guarantee the rule of law and constraints on executive power. However, increased globalization and international economic integration have stunted the development of these institutions by limiting states’ economic policy options, and, as a result, their fiscal policy space. When a state’s fiscal policy space—or, its ability to collect and spend revenue—is limited, governments are less able to provide public goods to citizens, politicians rely on populist rather than ideological appeals to win votes, and elections lose their democratizing potential. Additional research from a political–economic framework that incorporates insights from studies on state building and institutions with recent approaches to democratization and democracy promotion, which focus predominantly on elections, is needed. Such a framework provides avenues for additional research on the institutional aspects of ongoing democratization and democratic backsliding.
All governments require revenue, and domestic taxes are the primary means for generating it. Yet both the size and shape of taxation vary significantly across countries and have been transformed over time. What explains variation in domestic taxation? To answer this question, recent scholarship on taxation has focused on the politics of taxation as a tool for redistribution. This has led to a wide body of research on the fiscal impact of taxation and on the introduction, evolution, and variation in direct and progressive tax regimes, particularly the income tax. Yet the focus on taxation as a redistributive tool yields a puzzle, as more progressive tax systems tend to be found where redistribution is in fact the lowest. Explanations of this paradox often center on the impossibility of high and progressive taxes on capital in the context of international economic integration. Not as well studied are taxes other than the taxation of income, and the deliberate politics of nonfiscal, regulatory, and incentive effects of different tax choices. Methodologically, problems of endogeneity are ubiquitous in the study of tax policy choices, but more sophisticated experimental work is well underway in research on individual preferences for taxation.
The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the Treaty on Stability, Coordination, and Governance, often referred to as the Fiscal Compact, constitute two of the main European Union (EU) instruments for dealing with the eurozone crisis. Both had to be established as intergovernmental agreements outside of, but parallel to, the EU’s legal framework. However, the instruments were closely linked to the European Community framework and made extensive use of Community institutions. The ESM was originally set up as a loan facility to Eurozone countries facing problems financing their debt, but it became much bigger in size and scope than originally envisioned by the member states. The Fiscal Compact, on the other hand, can be considered as the fiscal counterpart to the ESM. It received a lot of attention in the press and academia, but it was first and foremost required as a political signal that would allow further enhancements of the ESM. The two instruments are often employed in the literature as part of a continuing juxtaposition of intergovernmentalist and supranationalist methods or approaches. However, from a theoretical perspective, the ESM and Fiscal Compact reflect an acknowledgment of new realities in European integration, in which intergovernmental actors and action channels play a more prominent role in decision making, but this does not necessarily come at the expense of the supranational actors. The instruments exemplify the rise of the European Council’s centered governance for dealing with major reforms. The processes of setting up the ESM and Fiscal Compact were undoubtedly political and top-down, but they were less driven and controlled by the big member states than the label ‘intergovernmental’ implies.
While Latin America has augmented its tax effort significantly since 2000, tax revenues remain below the global norm given the region’s income per capita. Indirect taxes constitute a disproportionate portion of overall revenues, a manifestation of the political and technical difficulties inherent to taxing Latin American elites. Several structural factors characterizing the region hamper revenue collection, including mediocre economic performance, a large informal sector, high income inequality, the rentier status of some economies, and weak state infrastructural power, alongside feeble tax administration agencies, among other factors. Political scientists have deployed three main paradigms for understanding tax policy outcomes and tax reform: interest-based, ideational, and institutional accounts. Interest-based accounts, centered on the political power and resources that interest groups can wield, provide a useful first approximation to understanding tax outcomes; nevertheless, this theoretical lens under-predicts the prevalence of observed tax reform in Latin America. The ideational lens is indispensable to account for the overall contours of the taxation system in the region, because tax reform was informed by the neoliberal paradigm. In recent years, moderately progressive tax policy changes have been enacted by left- and right-wing governments alike, reflecting the increasing centrality of addressing inequality (the vertical equity objective) in the realm of ideas. Democracy, qua a system of institutions geared to enhance the public interest, has not spawned the taxation systems that the median-voter theory predicts in the context of high societal inequality, however. Democracy has not fulfilled the taxation and fiscal policy expectations placed upon it. Nonetheless, structural factors may yet produce a salutary fiscal result. The recent increase in the size of the region’s middle class has translated into greater societal pressures to enhance the quality and quantity of public services, which may portend the development of a more encompassing state–society fiscal pact.