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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: August 2010

The Hidden Costs of the Progressivity Debate


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 worldview 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 hardworking 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 below 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.