Optimal Taxation and Optimal Tax Systems

Joel Slemrod

NBER Working Paper No. 3038 (Also Reprint No. r1509)
Issued in July 1989
NBER Program(s):Public Economics

The theory of optimal taxation has , for the pas two decades , been the reigning normative approach of taxation. This paper argues that , in its current state, optimal tax theory is incomplete as a guide to action concerning many critical issues in tax policy. It is incomplete because it has not yet come to terms with taxation as a system of coercively collecting revenues from individuals who will tend to resist. The coercive nature of collection taxes implies that the resource cost of implementing a tax system have been and will continue to be a critical determinant of appropriate tax policy. The paper first presents the three cornerstone propositions of optimal tax theory, and then it discusses the influence of these propositions on recent tax policy developments. It concludes by sketching an alternative to optimal taxation, called the theory of optimal tax systems, which embraces the insights of optimal taxation but also considers the technology of raising taxes and the constraints placed upon tax policy by that technology. The optimal tax systems perspective is shown to shed light on the choice of tax instruments, the problem of tax evasion, and the appropriate tax treatment of capital income.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w3038

Published: Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.4, No. 1, pp. 157-178, (Winter 1990). citation courtesy of

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