Is progressive taxation “fair”?Is progressive taxation “fair”?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

U.S. income tax is a progressive tax. "Fair" has several applicable definitions in context of the question of "fair progressive taxation."

  1. Just to all parties; equitable
  2. Being in accordance with relative merit or significance
  3. Consistent with rules, logic, or ethics
  4. Free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice

All these definitions of usage of "fair" indicate that a per income and per wealth division of taxation is preeminently "fair":

Progressive taxation is just and equitable to refrain from making relatively poor people feel the strain of a limited income even more.

It accords with an individual's or family's relative merit or significance.

It is consistent with rules and logic and ethics, all of which prohibit the administration of targeted, excessive suffering on isolated members or groups of society.

Some may say progressive taxation is biased in favor of less successful people, but others may equally say it is free of any bias as it is honest and just.

This examination seems to indicate that the question isn't whether progressive taxation is "fair," because the definitions of "fair" all indicate that progressive taxation is indeed fair.

This examination seems to indicate that the real question is whether any individual or group likes progressive taxation and wants to put up with it, despite the fact that it is proven to be fair, just, reasonable, ethical and respective of merit. This is a valid question, and individuals or groups may indeed honestly dislike progressive taxation and wish to be rid of it on various other grounds despite its fairness.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm afraid the nature of this question is going to (and has) split everyone into conservatives and liberals.  I am going to plead the fifth (as the fifth amendment allows me the right NOT to say my actual opinion), but I will say that conservatives generally do not agree with progressive taxation.  And here I will post a good quote by Bill O'Reilly:

The solution to poverty is not sympathy. That makes the sympathizer feel good but does little to help the guy who needs money. No, the solution to poverty in America is to say, 'Hey, go back to school, learn a skill, and work hard when somebody hires you.' And in our society, just about every American has the opportunity to do that. Excuses walk.

In regards to the more liberal/progressive side, they usually DO agree with progressive taxation.  Ironically, they have wonderful points as well!  If one earns enough to be affluent, happily indulging in surplus, ... then should that person contribute to those in society who, by no fault of their own, have less?  People who become filthy rich as a result of questionable lines of work, I suppose, would be good examples.

And, of course, the editors above make a great point when they say that the key to your question (and the part that makes it quite controversial) is the word "fair."

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator
As others have stated here, the definition of "fair" is subjective. If your economic goals include leveling the playing field in terms of per capita income and standard of living, then yes, progressive taxes are very fair. If the rich pay gas taxes, and barely notice the difference in their pocketbooks, while the poor pay the exact same amount of gas taxes, even though their income is far less, this is a regressive tax, and many would say it's not fair. The rich would disagree, of course, they would argue that they pay far more than anyone else and without their spending and investment the economy would be nowhere. So to them, "fair" would be everyone paying a flat tax rate, for example. I disagree, however. Public tax dollars help corporations to profit all the time, in defense spending, transportation, health care--the costs run into the hundreds of billions with private businesses benefitting. I feel their paying a higher percentage of taxes is fair.
accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are certainly a variety of responses to this excellent question. Some think that progressive taxation is incredibly unfair. This is because they believe that those that work harder and have more stressful positions should not pay more tax than those who have less demanding jobs. Some would argue however that those who earn more should contribute more to the state than others, and would cite the horrendous amounts of money that people such as bankers earn as evidence of this. My own personal belief is that progressive taxation is a good idea on the whole, as it is only reasonable to expect to pay slightly more if you are earning more. This is not necessarily a very popular or acceptable view, however.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is, of course, a matter of opinion.

If one bases "fairness" on the principle of ability to pay, then progressive taxation is fair.  It is fair because it asks those with more money (who are better able to pay) to pay a higher percentage of their earnings.

If one bases "fairness" on the idea that people should all pay a similar percentage of their incomes, then progressive taxation is obviously not fair.  It is not fair (in that view) for one person to pay 10% of their income in taxes while another pays 25%.

The answer, then, depends on if "fairness" means that the people who can pay more should pay more or if all people should be treated equally.

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

So the bigger question may be, what is the fairest means of raising revenue? Does progressive taxation treat everyone fairly by asking every taxpayer to pay in proportion to his/her available finances, recognizing that some people have more income available and should be asked to contribute more to the general economy? Would a flat tax be more fair, asking everyone to pay a given percentage of income? Do some groups of taxpayers have more deductions or write-offs or other loopholes available to reduce their amount of taxes due than others - and does this discrepancy need to be addressed? It's a hugely political issue as well as an economic question.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think you'll find answers falling down party lines for this one.  The idea is that the more you have, the more you should pay.  Of course, even when the rate is the same the rich would pay more IF they did not spend so much time and effort avoiding taxes.  In my mind, the progressive tax is kind of a balance for all the tax loophole the rich manage to find, so they still pay their fair share.