economists are weird

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Tue Aug 24 17:51:13 PDT 1999

"The Uneasy Case for the Flat Tax"


George Mason University, School of Law


Indiana University at Bloomington

Department of Business Economics & Public Policy

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Paper ID: Indiana University, Business Economics and Public

Policy Working Paper No. 99.002

Date: July 13, 1999


Email: Mailto:erasmuse at

Postal: Indiana University at Bloomington

Department of Business Economics & Public Policy

1309 East Tenth Street

Bloomington, IN 47405 USA

Phone: (812)855-9219

Fax: (812)855-3354

Co-Auth: F. H. BUCKLEY

Email: Mailto:fbuckley at

Postal: George Mason University, School of Law

3401 N. Fairfax Drive

Arlington, VA 22201 USA


There is a secret paradox at the heart of social contract

theories. Such theories assume that, because personal security

and private property are at risk in a state of nature, subjects

will agree to grant Leviathan a monopoly of violence. But what

is to prevent Leviathan from turning on his subjects once they

have lain down their arms? If Leviathan has the same incentives

as his subjects in the Hobbesian state of nature, he will

plunder them more thoroughly than ever they plundered themselves

in the state of nature. Thus the social contract always leaves

subjects worse off, unless Leviathan can fetter himself. And how

can Leviathan bind himself, if he can always impose confiscatory

taxes or choke off trade through inefficient regulations? This

Article suggests that schemes of progressive taxation, in which

marginal tax rates increase with taxable income, may be seen as

a useful incentive strategy to bribe Leviathan from imposing

inefficient regulations. Income taxes give Leviathan an equity

claim in his state's economy, and progressive taxes give him a

greater residual interest in upside payoffs. Leviathan will then

demand a higher side payment from interest groups to impose

value-destroying regulations. Of course, progressive taxation

imposes its own incentive costs, by reducing the subject's

private gains. However, these costs must be balanced against the

gains from correcting Leviathan's misincentives, and it may that

such gains exceed the costs of progressive taxation.

JEL Classification: H00, H11, H21, H50, L50, L51, P00

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