Taxation, Redistribution and Property Rights


Peter Vallentyne

What kinds of taxation, if any, are just, relative to a given set of property rights? To answer this question, we first need to clarify what taxation is, what justice is and what property rights are. We shall see that full moral ownership of a resource is indeed incompatible with just taxation for the use or ownership of that resource, but various forms of near-full ownership are compatible.

Taxation and Justice

Our topic is the justice of taxation relative to a given set of moral property rights. Let us start by clarifying the notions of taxation and justice.

A tax, roughly speaking, is a financial charge made by a state upon an entity (e.g., individual or corporation) for the support of state operations and programs and subject to forcible extraction and perhaps penalty if not paid. For accounting or legal purposes, taxes are often distinguished from: (1) compulsory payments for social insurance (e.g., unemployment insurance, health insurance or pension plans), (2) user fees for stateprovided services (e.g., for using parks, sewage disposal or roads), and (3) miscellaneous other revenue (e.g., fines). I shall, however, understand taxes broadly to include all of these. Moreover, I shall also include state-required provisions of services (e.g., military service, or use of one’s car or land) or goods (e.g., crops) as taxes as well (even though they need not require the payment of any specified financial value). In this broad sense, taxes include all state-required provisions of goods (including money) or services to the state. For simplicity, I shall not address state-required provisions of goods or services to others (e.g., state-required payments of car or health insurance premiums to a private company), but these can raise similar issues.

Our main question concerns the justice of taxation, but what is justice? Unfortunately, the term “justice” is used in different ways by different authors: (1) as moral permissibility for basic social structures, (2) as distributive fairness (e.g., net benefits in accordance with comparative desert), (3) as the fulfillment of all duties owed to someone (i.e., as wronging no one) and (4) as fulfilling all enforceable duties, where an enforceable duty is one for which someone is permitted to forcibly ensure compliance (e.g., the duty not to kill, but not the duty to keep your promise to your mother).

I shall here use “justice” in the sense of the fulfillment of all interpersonal duties (duties owed to someone). Just actions in this sense are actions that wrong no one in the sense of infringing no one’s rights. As long as rights are understood broadly to include choice-protecting and interest-protecting rights, as being either pro tanto or conclusive, and as sometimes being highly conditional, the topic of justice in this sense is very broad. It includes all moral duties except impersonal moral duties (duties owed to no one; i.e., a duty to X that applies even when all autonomous agents have validly consented to not-X and when not-Xing benefits all entities with moral standing).

It is important to keep in mind that my arguments do not automatically apply to the other concepts of justice above. If, however, one holds, as I do, that all and only duties owed to someone are enforceable (in principle), then the arguments will also apply to the concept of justice as fulfilling all enforceable duties (the fourth concept above).

Property Rights and Ownership

Ownership of a thing is a certain kind of bundle of rights over it. Throughout, we will focus on moral ownership (a certain kind of bundle of moral rights) as opposed to legal ownership (a certain kind of bundle of legal rights). We shall see that it does, if the individual fully owns the resource, but it need not do so where the ownership is less than full.

The classic analysis of ownership is that given by Honoré (1961), who identifies 11 elements of full (or liberal) ownership. This list, I believe, can be radically simplified to the following three kinds of right, where use of an object is understood broadly to include all the ways that persons can physically impact upon an object:

1 Rights to control use of the object: for example, the rights to possess, use, consume, waste, modify and destroy the object, and the right to manage (decide how others may use) the object;

2 Rights to transfer the rights to others (by sale, rental, gift or loan): for example, the right to alienate (transfer) the rights, and the lack of restrictions on transmissibility (e.g., all rights held can be transferred to others who may then transfer them to others ad infinitum);

3 Immunity to loss of these rights, except perhaps as a result of a rights infringement, and immunity to the loss of other rights for the mere possession or exercise of these rights: for example, the right to security (immunity from expropriation), absence of term (no loss after mere passage of time) and the absence of any conditionality on the provision of goods or services (e.g., rent).

Honoré has three elements that are not included in the above list, but they seem out of place: (1) prohibition of harmful use, (2) revisionary character (rules governing lapsed ownership rights) and (3) the right to income (e.g., rents and profits for allowing others to use it). The first element is not necessary, since the liberty right to use one’s property is only a liberty right to use the object as such, in the sense that no one else’s permission is needed for the mere use of the object. Property rights do not give the owners a liberty right to use the object in any way that they please. The full owner of a baseball bat has no liberty right to smash your car with it. Hence, there is no need to include a prohibition of harmful use. That prohibition comes from the rights of others (e.g., your rights over your car).

The second element, revisionary character, concerns rules governing lapsed ownership rights. Such rules are indeed important, but they are not needed for a specification of full ownership, since they are about how one can acquire rights over a thing that someone else has abandoned or otherwise lost.

The third element is the right to income (fruits, rents, profits) from the object. Somewhat controversially, I believe that this element is not part of the rights of full ownership. The core idea of this right is that the owner of an object (e.g., a movie theater) who grants permission to others to use it for a fee (or rents it out or sells it) has a right to the income (or other resources) that this generates. I do not question that the owner has a right to this income; I merely question that this flows from her full ownership of the thing generating the income. To make this point clear, let us assume that I fully own a movie theater, the admission fee is $10, you fully own $10 and you have paid me this amount for admission. I now own the $10, but this is so because you fully owned the $10 before, and your full ownership included the full right to transfer it to me with my consent. I would still fully own the $10 if you simply gave it to me as a gift and I accepted it. My ownership of the movie theater causally enabled me to get you to transfer $10 to me, but it did not include a right to the full income. That flows from your full ownership of the $10 and our mutual consent to a transfer.

There are two further property rights that Honoré mentions as accompanying remedies, but does not list separately:

4 Rights to compensation against another, if he/she uses the object without your permission and this harms you.

5 Rights of enforcement to prevent or rectify (e.g., extract compensation) use of the objection without one’s permission.

Full ownership of a thing is a maximally strong bundle of property rights of the above five sorts. More exactly, it is a maximally strong bundle of such rights over a given thing compatible with someone else having the same rights over everything else in the world (except for the agent and the space the thing is occupying). Full ownership thus includes full rights to control the use of the object and full rights to transfer it to others. As I shall explain, however, there is indeterminacy with respect to the immunity to loss and the rights to compensation and enforcement.

The concept of full ownership, I claim, is indeterminate with respect to how strong the following three elements are: immunity to loss, rights to compensation and enforcement rights. This is because the stronger one person’s compensation or enforcement rights are, the weaker another person’s immunity to loss is. At one extreme (radical enforcement rights), the compensation and enforcement rights might be so strong that a person loses all his ownership rights if he infringes the rights of the former. At the other extreme, there might be no compensation or enforcement rights: individuals would have an unconditional immunity to loss of their ownership rights. Neither extreme view is plausible, but the point here is simply that there is a logical tension between (1) the compensation and enforcement rights and (2) the immunity to loss. As a result, the notion of full ownership is indeterminate with respect to these elements. This leaves, however, a determinate core of full ownership that consists of the full rights to control use, the full rights to transfer the rights to others and full immunity to loss if one has not infringed the rights of others. (For further discussion of this issue, see Vallentyne, Steiner and Otsuka 2005.)

Let us now turn to our main question: whether just taxation is compatible with ownership.

Just Taxation and Ownership

Suppose that you legally fully own certain apples. Is that compatible with the legal permissibility of the state extracting an annual property tax on the value of your apples? It is not. Full legal ownership of a thing precludes the legal permissibility of taxation of the use of the thing or the possession or exercise of those rights. Our topic, however, is justice, and that is a moral, not a legal, issue. It concerns moral rights, not legal rights. The fact that you legally fully own something tells us little about what moral rights you have to it. Those who legally owned other people as involuntary slaves did not have any moral ownership of those individuals. If we are to assess the justice of taxation, we must focus on what moral rights of ownership people have.

Let us start by dismissing a radical challenge from Murphy and Nagel (2002). They claim that it is “logically impossible that people should have any kind of [moral] entitlement to all of their pretax income” (32). They defend this view by claiming that pretax income presupposes a market, which presupposes a government, which presupposes taxes (32). Thus, they conclude, “the idea of a prima facie property right in one’s pretax income—an income that could not exist without a tax-supported government—is meaningless” (36). This is not correct. The mistaken claim here is that a market presupposes a government. There is nothing incoherent in the idea of people having property rights in things (e.g., the apples and oranges that they grow) and their trading them in the absence of any government. Indeed, something like this takes place in primitive societies. Obviously, governments typically play a significant role in supporting markets, but that is not enough to support their radical claim that it is logically impossible for there to be markets without governments.

In the above passages, Murphy and Nagel overstate their case. Their real point is that moral property rights to external things are justice-determined