Taxation and distributive justice

Distributive justice concerns the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Opposition to higher rates of taxation, or even existing levels of taxation, are often made on grounds that such taxes are unfair burdens. This fairness argument can be given a number of further, more specific, formulations. Libertarians like Robert Nozick, for example, argue that taxation of income is unfair because it violates individual rights. Libertarians invoke an entitlement argument which presumes that the appropriate baseline of property rights is pretax income. Others take issue with specific policies that are supported by taxation, such as welfare provisions, and argue that welfare reform is necessary as tax burdens are only legitimate when they satisfy some form of reciprocity thesis. In this review article I critically assess these arguments. The recent publication of The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, and The Civic Minimum: On the Rights and Obligations of Economic Citizenship help shed some light on each of these different arguments that are often invoked in defence of tax cuts. These three books are a welcome addition to debates about distributive justice as they help bridge the gap between normative theory and public policy. In addition to raising doubts about the arguments that taxation is unfair, I examine themes that raise important questions about taxation and justice- private property, welfare reform and inheritance. An examination of these themes should make it clear that the real challenge facing justice-theorists is to take scarcity seriously and thus I emphasis the shortcomings of simply endorsing a ‘cost-blind’ rights-oriented conception of justice. Such a conception of justice currently dominates debates in normative political theory.
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