Washington Law Review


As democracies around the world have faltered, legal scholars in fields as diverse as election law, labor law, and administrative law have turned to tax law to repair and support democratic governments. Taxation offers a toolset well-equipped to address concerns raised by democratic theorists focused on the conditions that shape a democratic community and help it to flourish. Tax laws can rectify social dynamics characterized by economic inequality and can help establish and strengthen civic institutions, among many possible interventions. But legal scholars evaluating and designing tax policies generally focus on the standard normative criteria of efficiency, equity, and administrability, with little specific regard for democratic concerns. This separation from democratic theory has left tax law scholars ill-equipped to respond to calls for help from more democracy-focused fields of law. Thus, tax scholarship mostly has not engaged with the increasingly important project of strengthening democratic governance.

This Article argues that democracy should be a more central consideration in designing and evaluating tax laws in a democratic system of government, exploring a set of democracy criteria that can bolster the standard normative criteria used to evaluate tax policy. The democracy criteria considered here ask: Does a change in tax rules strengthen or undermine democratic governance? This Article draws on democratic theory to identify pressure points where taxation might shape democracy, building on work by tax scholars who have tried to integrate democratic values into the standard criteria. I make the case that democratic considerations should not be subordinated to other criteria, but rather should stand on their own. I apply the democracy criteria to wealth tax proposals, showing how a democratic perspective illuminates a contemporary debate in U.S. tax policy.

Approached in this way, a democratic perspective on tax law and policy can facilitate tax responses—in scholarly discourse and in policy prescriptions—to current challenges facing democracies around the world, answering the calls of scholars in other fields who (appropriately) view tax rules as sites of important potential interventions to shore up democracy.

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