Vanderbilt Law Review


Nancy C. Staudt

First Page



Progressive taxation-taxing high income individuals at a proportionally higher level than low income individuals-has sparked more than a century of controversy. Those who support progressive taxation have heralded it as a policy that promotes the greatest good for the greatest number in society protects traditional democratic values, reflects the communitarian world-view of women who see themselves as responsible for the well-being of all individuals, and reveals the "aesthetic judgment" that income inequality is "distinctly evil or unlovely." At the same time, critics have condemned progressive income taxation as social policy that amounts to theft and involuntary servitude, reflects the democratic process gone awry, penalizes hard-working individuals, and produces economic waste throughout society. Theorists in almost every discipline have entered the progressivity debate, proposing a variety of different tax rates in order to disburse the costs of public goods and services.

Despite their contending viewpoints, theorists on both sides of the debate have reached surprising consensus on the proper treatment of the truly poor. Both sides agree that legislators and policy-makers must avoid imposing tax costs on individuals living at or be- low subsistence levels of income. This agreement is notable in light of the widespread perception that advocates of progressivity worry about the poor while its detractors worry about the wealthy."

In fact, all tax theorists have divided society into two groups-relatively wealthy individuals who pay taxes and poor individuals who are excluded from the face of the laws entirely. Of course, if the goal of tax policy is to distribute the costs of public goods, then offering an exemption to the poor might seem desirable and perhaps even an obvious policy choice, given that the poor have little or no income. While the practical difficulty of collecting the tax explains why theorists have advocated an exemption, it does not explain why they have failed to explore any positive rights beyond an exemption or, indeed, any responsibility the poor might have to society despite their lack of income.

In this Article, I argue that.by reaching the agreement that the poor should have no tax liability, the contest over progressivity has centered improperly on the rights and responsibilities of relatively wealthy citizens. The wealthy are widely perceived to have valuable property that, if shared with society, will enable the smooth operation of the democratic state. At the same time, the wealthy are perceived to have liberty interests, which if violated, could lead to the ruin of the domestic economy.