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4. Binary Intervention: Taxation > 7. Canons of "Justice" in... > C. Distribution of the Tax Burden

(2) The “Ability-To-Pay” Principle

(a) The ambiguity of the concept

This principle states that people should pay taxes in accordance with their “ability to pay.” It is generally conceded that the concept of ability to pay is a highly ambiguous one and presents no sure guide for practical application.64 Most economists have employed the principle to support a program of proportional or progressive income taxation, but this would hardly suffice. It seems clear, for example, that a person's accumulated wealth affects his ability to pay. A man earning $5,000 during a certain year probably has more ability to pay than a neighbor earning the same amount if he also has $50,000 in the bank while his neighbor has nothing. Yet a tax on accumulated capital would cause general impoverishment. No clear standard can be found to gauge “ability to pay.” Both wealth and income would have to be considered, medical expenses would have to be deducted, etc. But there is no precise criterion to be invoked, and the decision is necessarily arbitrary. Thus, should all or some proportion of medical bills be deducted? What about the expenses of childrearing? Or food, clothing, and shelter as necessary to consumer “maintenance”? Professor Due attempts to find a criterion for ability in “economic well-being,” but it should be clear that this concept, being even more subjective, is still more difficult to define.65

Adam Smith himself used the ability concept to support proportional income taxation (taxation at a constant percentage of income), but his argument is rather ambiguous and applies to the “benefit” principle as well as to “ability to pay.”66 Indeed, it is hard to see in precisely what sense ability to pay rises in proportion to income. Is a man earning $10,000 a year “equally able” to pay $2,000 as a man earning $1,000 to pay $200? Setting aside the basic qualifications of difference in wealth, medical expenses, etc., in what sense can “equal ability” be demonstrated? Attempting to define equal ability in such a way is a meaningless procedure.

McCulloch, in a famous passage, attacked progressiveness and defended proportionality of taxation:

The moment you abandon ... the cardinal principle of exacting from all individuals the same proportion of their income or their property, you are at sea without rudder or compass, and there is no amount of injustice or folly you may not commit.67

Seemingly plausible, this thesis is by no means self-evident. In what way is proportional taxation any less arbitrary than any given pattern of progressive taxation, i.e., where the rate of tax increases with income? There must be some principle that can justify proportionality; if this principle does not exist, then proportionality is no less arbitrary than any other taxing pattern. Various principles have been offered and will be considered below, but the point is that proportionality per se is neither more nor less sound than any other taxation.

One school of thought attempts to find a justification for a progressive tax via an ability-to-pay principle. This is the “faculty” approach of E.R.A. Seligman. This doctrine holds that the more money a person has, the relatively easier it is for him to acquire more. His power of obtaining money is supposed to increase as he has more: “A rich man may be said to be subject ... to a law of increasing returns.”68 Therefore, since his ability increases at a faster rate than his income, a progressive income tax is justified. This theory is simply invalid.69 Money does not “make money”; if it did, then a few people would by now own all the world's wealth. To be earned money must continually be justifying itself in current service to consumers. Personal income, interest, profits, and rents are earned only in accordance with their current, not their past, services. The size of accumulated fortune is immaterial, and fortunes can be and are dissipated when their owners fail to reinvest them wisely in the service of consumers.

As Blum and Kalven point out, the Seligman thesis is utter nonsense when applied to personal services such as labor energy. It could only make sense when applied to income from property, i.e., investment in land or capital goods (or slaves, in a slave economy). But the return on capital is always tending toward uniformity, and any departures from uniformity are due to especially wise and farseeing investments (profits) or especially wasteful investments (losses). The Seligman thesis would fallaciously imply that the rates of return increase in proportion to the amount invested.

Another theory holds that ability to pay is proportionate to the “producer's surplus” of an individual, i.e., his “economic rent,” or the amount of his income above the payment necessary for him to continue production. The consequences of taxation of site rent were noted above. The “necessary payments” to labor are clearly impossible to establish; if someone is asked by the tax authorities what his “minimum” wage is, what will prevent him from saying that any amount below the present wage will cause him to retire or to shift to another job? Who can prove differently? Furthermore, even if it could be determined, this “surplus” is hardly an indicator of ability to pay. A movie star may have practically zero surplus, for some other studio may be willing to bid almost as much as he makes now for his services, while a disabled ditch-digger may have a much greater “surplus” because no one else may be willing to hire him. Generally, in an advanced economy there is little “surplus” of this type, for the competition of the market will push alternative jobs and uses near to the factor's discounted marginal value product in its present use. Hence, it would be impossible to tax any “surplus” over necessary payment from land or capital since none exists, and practically impossible to tax the “surplus” to labor since the existence of a sizable surplus is rare, impossible to determine, and, in any case, no criterion whatever of ability to pay.70

(b) The justice of the standard

The extremely popular ability-to-pay idea was sanctified by Adam Smith in his most important canon of taxation and has been accepted blindly ever since. While much criticism has been levelled at its inherent vagueness, hardly anyone has criticized the basic principle, despite the fact that no one has really grounded it in sound argument. Smith himself gave no reasoning to support this alleged principle, and few others have done so since. Due, in his text on public finance, simply accepts it because most people believe in it, thereby ignoring the possibility of any logical analysis of ethical principles.71

The only substantial attempt to give some rational support to the “ability-to-pay principle” rests on a strained comparison of tax payments to voluntary gifts to charitable organizations. Thus Groves writes: “ To hundreds of common enterprises (community chests, Red Cross, etc.) people are expected to contribute according to their means. Governments are one of these common enterprises fostered to serve the citizens as a group. ...”72 Seldom have more fallacies been packed into two sentences. In the first place, the government is not a common enterprise akin to the community chest. No one can resign from it. No one, on penalty of imprisonment, can come to the conclusion that this “charitable enterprise” is not doing its job properly and therefore stop his “contribution”; no one can simply lose interest and drop out. If, as will be seen further below, the State cannot be described as a business, engaged in selling services on the market, certainly it is ludicrous to equate it to a charitable organization. Government is the very negation of charity, for charity is uniquely an unbought gift, a freely flowing uncoerced act by the giver. The word “expected” in Groves’ phrase is misleading. No one is forced to give to any charity in which he is not interested or which he believes is not doing its job properly.

The contrast is even clearer in a phrase of Hunter and Allen's:

Contributions to support the church or the community chest are expected, not on the basis of benefits which individual members receive from the organization, but upon the basis of their ability to con-tribute.73

But this is praxeologically invalid. The reason that anyone contributes voluntarily to a charity is precisely the benefit that he obtains from it. Yet benefit can be considered only in a subjective sense. It can never be measured. The fact of subjective gain, or benefit, from an act is deducible from the fact that it was performed. Each person making an exchange is deduced to have benefited (at least ex ante). Similarly, a person who makes a unilateral gift is deduced to have benefited (ex ante) from making the gift. If he did not benefit, he would not have made the gift. This is another indication that praxeology does not assume the existence of an “economic man,” for the benefit from an action may come either from a good or a service directly received in exchange, or simply from the knowledge that someone else will benefit from a gift. Gifts to charitable institutions, therefore, are made precisely on the basis of benefit to the giver, not on the basis of his “ability to pay.”

Furthermore, if we compare taxation with the market, we find no basis for adopting the “ability-to-pay” principle. On the contrary, the market price (generally considered the just price) is almost always uniform or tending toward uniformity. Market prices tend to obey the rule of one price throughout the entire market. Everyone pays an equal price for a good regardless of how much money he has or his “ability to pay.” Indeed, if the “ability-to-pay” principle pervaded the market, there would be no point in acquiring wealth, for everyone would have to pay more for a product in proportion to the money in his possession. Money incomes would be approximately equalized, and, in fact, there would be no point at all to acquiring money, since the purchasing power of a unit of money would never be definite but would drop, for any man, in proportion to the quantity of money he earns. A person with less money would simply find the purchasing power of a unit of his money rising accordingly. Therefore, unless trickery and black marketeering could evade the regulations, establishing the “ability-to-pay” principle for prices would wreck the market altogether. The wrecking of the market and the monetary economy would plunge society back to primitive living standards and, of course, eliminate a large part of the current world population, which is permitted to earn a subsistence living or higher by virtue of the existence of the modern, developed market.

It should be clear, moreover, that establishing equal incomes and wealth for all (e.g., by taxing all those over a certain standard of income and wealth, and subsidizing all those below that standard) would have the same effect, since there would be no point to anyone's working for money. Those who enjoy performing labor will do so only “at play,” i.e., without obtaining a monetary return. Enforced equality of income and wealth, therefore, would return the economy to barbarism.

If taxes were to be patterned after market pricing, then, taxes would be levied equally (not proportionately) on everyone. As will be seen below, equal taxation differs in critical respects from market pricing but is a far closer approximation to it than is “ability-to-pay” taxation.

Finally, the “ability-to-pay” principle means precisely that the able are penalized, i.e., those most able in serving the wants of their fellow men. Penalizing ability in production and service diminishes the supply of the service—and in proportion to the extent of that ability. The result will be impoverishment, not only of the able, but of the rest of society, which benefits from their services.

The “ability-to-pay” principle, in short, cannot be simply assumed; if it is employed, it must be justified by logical argument, and this economists have yet to provide. Rather than being an evident rule of justice, the “ability-to-pay” principle resembles more the highwayman's principle of taking where the taking is good.74

  • 64. See Walter J. Blum and Harry Kalven, Jr., The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 64–68.
  • 65. Due, Government Finance, pp. 121ff.
  • 66. Said Smith:
    The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion of their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation, is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute to their respective interests in the estate. (Wealth of Nations, p. 777)
  • 67. J.R. McCulloch, A Treatise on the Principle and Practical Influence of Taxation and the Funding System (London, 1845), p. 142.
  • 68. E.R.A. Seligman, Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice (2nd ed.; (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1908), pp. 291–92.
  • 69. For an excellent critique of the Seligman theory, see Blum and Kalven, Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, pp. 64–66.
  • 70. See ibid., pp. 67–68.
  • 71. Due, Government Finance, p. 122.
  • 72. Groves, Financing Government, p. 36.
  • 73. Hunter and Allen, Principles of Public Finance, pp. 190–91.
  • 74. See Chodorov, Out of Step, p. 237. See also Chodorov, From Solomon's Yoke to the Income Tax (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1947), p. 11.