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

(3) Sacrifice Theory

Another attempted criterion of just taxation was the subject of a flourishing literature for many decades, although it is now decidedly going out of fashion. The many variants of the “sacrifice” approach are akin to a subjective version of the “ability-to-pay” principle. They all rest on three general premises: (a) that the utility of a unit of money to an individual diminishes as his stock of money increases; (b) that these utilities can be compared interpersonally and thus can be summed up, subtracted, etc.; and (c) that everyone has the same utility-of-money schedule. The first premise is valid (but only in an ordinal sense), but the second and third are nonsensical. The marginal utility of money does diminish, but it is impossible to compare one person's utilities with another, let alone believe that everyone's valuations are identical. Utilities are not quantities, but subjective orders of preference. Any principle for distributing the tax burden that rests on such assumptions must therefore be declared fallacious. Happily, this truth is now generally established in the economic literature.75

Utility and “sacrifice” theory has generally been used to justify progressive taxation, although sometimes proportional taxation has been upheld on this ground. Briefly, a dollar is alleged to “mean less” or be worth less in utility to a “rich man” than to a “poor man” (“rich” or “poor” in income or wealth?), and therefore payment of a dollar by a rich man imposes less of a subjective sacrifice on him than on a poor man. Hence, the rich man should be taxed at a higher rate. Many “ability-to-pay” theories are really inverted sacrifice theories, since they are couched in the form of ability to make sacrifices.

Since the nub of the sacrifice theory—interpersonal comparisons of utility—is now generally discarded, we shall not spend much time discussing the sacrifice doctrine in detail.76 However, several aspects of this theory are of interest. The sacrifice theory divides into two main branches: (1) the equal-sacrifice principle and (2) the minimum-sacrifice principle. The former states that every man should sacrifice equally in paying taxes; the latter, that society as a whole should sacrifice the least amount. Both versions abandon completely the idea of government as a supplier of benefits and treat government and taxation as simply a burden, a sacrifice that must be borne in the best way we know how. Here we have a curious principle of justice indeed—based on adjustment to hurt. We are faced again with that pons asinorum that defeats all attempts to establish canons of justice for taxation—the problem of the justice of taxation itself. The proponent of the sacrifice theory, in realistically abandoning unproved assumptions of benefit from taxation, must face and then founder on the question: If taxation is pure hurt, why endure it at all?

The equal-sacrifice theory asks that equal hurt be imposed on all. As a criterion of justice, this is as untenable as asking for equal slavery. One interesting aspect of the equal-sacrifice theory, however, is that it does not necessarily imply progressive income taxation! For although it implies that the rich man should be taxed more than the poor man, it does not necessarily say that the former should be taxed more than proportionately. In fact, it does not even establish that all be taxed proportionately! In short, the equal-sacrifice principle may demand that a man earning $10,000 be taxed more than a man earning $1,000, but not necessarily that he be taxed a greater percentage or even proportionately. Depending on the shapes of the various “utility curves,” the equal-sacrifice principle may well call for regressive taxation under which a wealthier man would pay more in amount but less proportionately (e.g., the man earning $10,000 would pay $500, and the man earning $1,000 would pay $200). The more rapidly the utility of money declines, the more probably will the equal-sacrifice curve yield progressivity. A slowly declining utility-of-money schedule would call for regressive taxation. Argument about how rapidly various utility-of-money schedules decline is hopeless because, as we have seen, the entire theory is untenable. But the point is that even on its own grounds, the equal-sacrifice theory can justify neither progressive nor proportionate taxation.77

The minimum-sacrifice theory has often been confused with the equal-sacrifice theory. Both rest on the same set of false assumptions, but the minimum-sacrifice theory counsels very drastic progressive taxation. Suppose, for example, that there are two men in a community, Jones making $50,000, and Smith making $30,000. The principle of minimum social sacrifice, resting on the three assumptions described above, declares: $1.00 taken from Jones imposes less of a sacrifice than $1.00 taken from Smith; hence, if the government needs $1.00, it takes it from Jones. But suppose the government needs $2.00; the second dollar will impose less of a sacrifice on Jones than the first dollar taken from Smith, for Jones still has more money left than Smith and therefore sacrifices less. This continues as long as Jones has more money remaining than Smith. Should the government need $20,000 in taxes, the minimum-sacrifice principle counsels taking the entire $20,000 from Jones and zero from Smith. In other words, it advocates taking all of the highest incomes in turn until governmental needs are fulfilled.78

The minimum-sacrifice principle depends heavily, as does the equal-sacrifice theory, on the untenable view that everyone's utility-of-money schedule is roughly identical. Both rest also on a further fallacy, which now must be refuted: that “sacrifice” is simply the obverse of the utility of money. For the subjective sacrifice in taxation may not be merely the opportunity cost forgone of the money paid; it may also be increased by moral outrage at the tax procedure. Thus, Jones may become so morally outraged at the above proceedings that his marginal subjective sacrifice quickly becomes very great, much “greater” than Smith's if we grant for a moment that the two can be compared. Once we see that subjective sacrifice is not necessarily tied to the utility of money, we may extend the principle further. Consider, for example, a philosophical anarchist who opposes all taxation fervently. Suppose that his subjective sacrifice in the payment of any tax is so great as to be almost infinite. In that case, the minimum-sacrifice principle would have to exempt the anarchist from taxation, while the equal-sacrifice principle could tax him only an infinitesimal amount. Practically, then, the sacrifice principle would have to exempt the anarchist from taxation. Furthermore, how can the government determine the subjective sacrifice of the individual? By asking him? In that case, how many people would refrain from proclaiming the enormity of their sacrifice and thus escape payment completely?

Similarly, if two individuals subjectively enjoyed their identical money incomes differently, the minimum-sacrifice principle would require that the happier man be taxed less because he makes a greater sacrifice in enjoyment from an equal tax. Who will suggest heavier taxation on the unhappy or the ascetic? And who would then refrain from loudly proclaiming the enormous enjoyment he derives from his income?

It is curious that the minimum-sacrifice principle counsels the obverse of the ability-to-pay theory, which, particularly in its “state of well-being” variant, advocates a special tax on happiness and a lower tax on unhappiness. If the latter principle prevailed, people would rush to proclaim their unhappiness and deep-seated asceticism.

It is clear that the proponents of the ability-to-pay and sacrifice theories have completely failed to establish them as criteria of just taxation. These theories also commit a further grave error. For the sacrifice theory explicitly, and the ability-to-pay theory implicitly, set up presumed criteria for action in terms of sacrifice and burden.79 The State is assumed to be a burden on society, and the question becomes one of justly distributing this burden. But man is constantly striving to sacrifice as little as he can for the benefits he receives from his actions. Yet here is a theory that talks only in terms of sacrifice and burden, and calls for a certain distribution without demonstrating to the taxpayers that they are benefiting more than they are giving up. Since the theorists do not so demonstrate, they can make their appeal only in terms of sacrifice—a procedure that is praxeologically invalid. Since men always try to find net benefits in a course of action, it follows that a discussion in terms of sacrifice or burden cannot establish a rational criterion for human action. To be praxeologically valid, a criterion must demonstrate net benefit. It is true, of course, that the proponents of the sacrifice theory are far more realistic than the proponents of the benefit theory (which we shall discuss below), in considering the State a net burden on society rather than a net benefit; but this hardly demonstrates the justice of the sacrifice principle of taxation. Quite the contrary.

  • 75. The acceptance of this critique dates from Robbins’ writings of the mid-1930's. See Lionel Robbins, “Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility,” Economic Journal, December, 1938, pp. 635–41; and Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (2nd ed.; London: Macmillan & Co., 1935), pp. 138–41. Robbins was, at that time, a decidedly “Misesian” economist.
  • 76. For a critique of sacrifice theory, see Blum and Kalven, Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, pp. 39–63.
  • 77. For an attempt to establish proportional taxation on the basis of equal sacrifice, see Bradford B. Smith, Liberty and Taxes (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, n.d.), pp. 10–12.
  • 78. Pushed to its logical conclusion in which the State is urged to establish “maximum social satisfaction”—the obverse of minimum social sac-rifice—the principle counsels absolute compulsory egalitarianism, with everyone above a certain standard taxed in order to subsidize everyone else to come up to that standard. The consequence, as we have seen, would be a return to the conditions of barbarism.
  • 79. The ability-to-pay principle is unclear on this point. Some proponents base their argument implicitly on sacrifice; others, on the necessity for payment for “untraceable” benefits.