The Chimera of Tax Fairness


In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night President Obama played the fairness card in calling for higher taxes on upper-income people. He said:

[W]e need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of Members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes. Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes. [Emphasis added.]


When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference. . . . [Emphasis added.]

There are lots of claims there that cry out for examination. For example, what’s need got to do with it? Does Obama really favor a tax system that leaves you only what you need — as determined by someone else? And look at that term “tax breaks.” If a burglar decides not to break into your house and take your things, have you gotten a break? Or have you simply kept what is yours? Is Obama really suggesting that how much of your income you retain should depend on what “the country” can afford? What does that even mean?

Buffett Rule

All that aside, I want to home in on Obama’s notion of fairness. “If you make more than $1 million a year,” he says, “you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.” How does he know that constitutes fairness? Obviously 30 percent is an arbitrary figure. If he’s concerned that income and payroll taxes take a smaller percentage of Warren Buffett’s income than the percentage they take from his secretary’s income, why not reduce his secretary’s tax rate? It’s certainly not obvious that Buffett should pay more. (For an interesting discussion of the secretary’s tax rate, see this and this.) Obama (like most other politicians) regards government spending growth as inexorable and virtually untouchable, but why? (Proposed “cuts” are merely reductions in the rate of growth.)

On this matter of tax fairness, no one tops Murray Rothbard’s discussion in his classic Power and Market: Government and the Economy (online in PDF format here). Rothbard starts by noting that for many years people thought products had a “just price.”

It is clear, even to those (like the present writer) who believe in the possibility of a rational ethics, that no possible ethical philosophy or science can yield a quantitative measure or criterion of justice. . . . Economics, by tracing the ordered pattern of the voluntary exchange process, has made it clear that the only possible objective criterion for the just price is the market price. For the market price is, at every moment, determined by the voluntary, mutually agreed-upon actions of all the participants in the market.”

Rothbard of course is talking about a market unblemished by government monopoly privilege and other interventions.

He goes on next to ask: “If the search for the just price has virtually ended in the pages of economic works, why does the quest for a ‘just tax’ continue with unabated vigor? Why do economists, severely scientific in their volumes, suddenly become ad hoc ethicists when the question of taxation is raised?”

We might also ask why a president makes ethical pronouncements about levels of taxation without first laying out his moral philosophy plainly for all to judge.

Canons of Justice in Taxation

Thus the “canons of justice” in taxation must not be taken for granted. Calling something just does not make it so. Rothbard writes:

The prime objection to these “canons” is that the writers have first to establish the justice of taxation itself. If this cannot be proven, and so far it has not been, then it is clearly idle to look for the “just tax.” If taxation itself is unjust, then it is clear that no allocation of its burdens, however ingenious, can be declared just.

A few pages earlier Rothbard defined taxation, uncontroversially, I hope, as “a coerced levy that the government extracts from the populace.” Pulling no punches, he quotes his mentor Frank Chodorov, once an editor of The Freeman:

A historical study of taxation leads inevitably to loot, tribute, ransom — the economic purpose of conquest. The barons who put up toll-gates along the Rhine were tax-gatherers. So were the gangs who “protected,” for a forced fee, the caravans going to market. The Danes who regularly invited themselves into England, and remained as unwanted guests until paid off, called it Dannegeld; for a long time that remained the basis of English property taxes. The conquering Romans introduced the idea that what they collected from subject peoples was merely just payment for maintaining law and order. For a long time the Norman conquerors collected catch-as-catch-can tribute from the English, but when by natural processes an amalgam of the two peoples resulted in a nation, the collections were regularized in custom and law and were called taxes.

“Why do not economists abandon the search for the ‘just tax’ as they abandoned the quest for the ‘just price’?” Rothbard asks.

One reason is that doing so may have unwelcome implications for them. The “just price” was abandoned in favor of the market price. Can the “just tax” be abandoned in favor of the market tax? Clearly not, for on the market there is no taxation, and therefore no tax can be established that will duplicate market patterns.

So let’s hear no more about tax fairness, unless it’s to point out that fairness is approached as tax rates move toward zero.

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families

Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.