Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Academics and policymakers pay little attention to the interaction of a tax system with the objectives of a just government. For example, in the debate about whether the United States should retain an income tax or adopt a consumption tax, most discussions focus on the relative efficiency and equity of the taxes. Proponents of a consumption tax worry that an income tax is inefficient because it burdens investment income. Advocates of an income tax fear that a consumption tax is not equitable because low-income taxpayers consume a greater percentage of their income than wealthy taxpayers. These concerns date at least as far back as Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill and continue into the twenty-first century. The difficulty in comparing these concerns is that efficiency gains can be quantified, but the benefits of tax equity appear intangible and difficult to measure. Moreover, the many different views of distributive justice obscure equity's importance because of disagreement about equity's underlying rationale. The failure to agree about a rationale for tax equity causes it to appear less well-defined and worthy than tax efficiency.

A leading tax academic has described tax policy's failed search for an appropriate rationale for equity as a search for the turtle on which all other turtles rest. This Article suggests that the failure is the result of an improper method of analysis. Tax policy has ignored the necessity of first identifying equity goals appropriate for a just government and then designing a tax system to help achieve those goals.

This Article proposes that the principal equity goal underlying a just government is the creation of equal opportunities for all citizens to achieve self-realization-to make the best life for themselves and their families. However, a tax system should not merely be evaluated for its contribution to achieving equal opportunity for self-realization. A tax should be designed to achieve equal opportunity for self- realization as one of its principal goals. Viewing equal opportunity for self-realization as a design issue leads to the identification of another principle that is foundational-the promotion of democracy. Both political philosophy and empirical literature suggest that equal access to the electoral process and participation in the community must exist in order for equal opportunity for self-realization to exist. Thus, the turtle lying at the bottom is equality of opportunity-equality of opportunity to maximize self-realization and equality of opportunity to participate in the political process.