Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

The Promise of Positive Optimal Taxation: Normative Diversity and a Role for Equal Sacri…fice

by Matthew Weinzierl

Abstract

A prominent assumption in modern optimal tax research is that the objective of taxation is Utilitarian. I present new survey evidence that most people reject this assumption's implications for several prominent features of tax policy, instead preferring tax policies based at least in part on a classic alternative objective: the principle of Equal Sacrifice. I generalize the standard model to accommodate this preference for a mixed objective, proposing a method by which to make disparate criteria commensurable while respecting Pareto efficiency. Then, I show that optimal policy in this generalized model, calibrated to the survey evidence and U.S. microdata, is capable of quantitatively matching several features of existing tax policy that are incompatible in the conventional model but widely endorsed in the survey and reality, including the coexistence of substantial redistribution and limited tagging. Together, these findings demonstrate the potential of a positive theory of optimal taxation.

Keywords: Taxation; Policy; United States;

Citation:

Weinzierl, Matthew. "The Promise of Positive Optimal Taxation: Normative Diversity and a Role for Equal Sacri…fice." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-013, August 2013. (Updated September 2014. NBER Working Paper Series, No. 18599.)