Taxes, Reciprocity, and Fair Play: On Voluntary Taxation: A Noble Dream? – Hans Gribnau


Peter Sloterdijk advocates a kind of voluntary taxation. His views on taxation might seem provocative but he is keenly aware of the foundational nature of taxation. Taxation makes a sustainable society possible, enhancing important values such as individual freedom and solidarity. That’s why he labelled taxation ‘the central moral phenomenon of our civilisation.’ Taxes are for him no form of slavery or theft. Nonetheless, he points out that the ‘taking state’ (‘der nehmende Staat’) imposes many – and often high – taxes. The ‘tax state’, a ‘kleptocracy’ with good intentions, therefore should take the taxpayer more seriously. The state receives huge amounts of money from its citizens, which it uses for all kinds of policy goals and the redistribution of income and wealth across society. Taxation has an enormous impact on all kinds of activities and situations of various members of society, citizens as well as enterprises.

Prof. dr. Hans Gribnau

The ‘tax state’ is involved (as the ‘taking party’) in almost all acts and activities of its citizens. This ‘fiscalisation’ of our existence means that taxes have an ever greater impact on our personal life and the choices we face. Notwithstanding the enormous impact of taxation on citizens’ lives, Sloterdijk argues, taxation is still mainly viewed from the perspective of the state. Against the substantial fiscal civic duties, one substantial ‘fiscal civil right’ would be expected for these generous ‘donors’, i.e. reciprocity between state and citizen. But that is definitely not the case, according to Sloterdijk. Taxpayers should be treated as citizens rather than as serfs or vassals (‘Steueruntertanen’). Therefore, there is a pressing need for a debate about the underlying values and principles of this ‘taking behaviour’. For Sloterdijk, taxation boils down to donating to society and thus donating to ourselves. In this view, the state is the debtor of the citizens. More radically speaking, may be the tax paid by citizens to the public treasury, to the state, is to be conceived … as a voluntary gift by citizens for the benefit of society?

Sloterdijk proposes an experiment: citizens should be allowed to pay (part of) their taxes voluntarily and to decide on the way this voluntary contribution should be spent. He argues that voluntarily paying, that is donating, taxes would contribute to strengthen citizens’ trust in politics, the way government spends their money, and in their fellow citizens. Sloterdijk in particular, has the (very) rich taxpayers in mind – who too often think they are ‘nobles’ – with their tax privileges – and who do not see why they should contribute something to society – ‘beyond the benefits of their mere presence’. This attitude adversely impacts social cohesion.

Nonetheless, with regard to voluntary donations, Sloterdijk trusts that ambition and civic pride will drive the behaviour of the wealthy towards society. He therefore expects a ‘lively competition in generosity of the wealthy, far beyond their (legal) tax obligations.’

There are two essential elements in Sloterdijk’s argument to change taxes from enforced levies into voluntary contributions from citizens for society – but through the state. Striking about this is the two-fold change of perspective: from forced to voluntary contributing, on the one hand, and from paying taxes to – and for the purpose of – the state to payments for the benefit of society,on the other.

Sloterdijk thus reminds us that the ultimate goal of taxation is to sustain civil society. The state is but an intermediary between citizens and should enhance the flourishing of society and citizens well-being. Moreover, two basic relationships are involved: on the one hand, a vertical one between the taxpayer and state; on the other hand, a horizontal relationship between the taxpayer and society and its (other) members. Here, the social contract doctrine springs to mind. The distinction between the mutually dependent vertical and horizontal relationships is reflected in social contract doctrine to the effect that men agree to pass from a state of nature to a state of society. Men express their consent in either an actual or a hypothetical contract. One may distinguish between two agreements, one in which men undertake to respect each other and live in peace in society (pactum unionis) and a second pact by which the people thus united undertake to obey a government which they themselves have chosen (pactum subjectionis). In short, to enhance one’s own and others’ liberty and autonomy a horizontal reciprocal relationship is established. The realisation of horizontal reciprocity is strongly connected to vertical reciprocity between state and individuals.

Societal cooperation generally enhances individual well-being, not only survival, but also self-affirmation and a successful life. As Rawls wrote, society can be seen as ‘a cooperative venture for mutual advantage […] typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests.’ The state supports this cooperation. Indeed, as Adam Smith argued the efforts of society and government enable the (corporate) members of society to flourish. Reciprocity demands to repay for benefits received from society. Subjects of the state therefore, ought to contribute towards support of government which in turn sustains society. They should pay their fair share of taxes. This share is laid down in the law, but of course, some people can very expertly play around with the (international) system of tax rules. They are evidently not paying their fair share, violating their societal duty to contribute. Paradoxically, individuals who may able keep their legal obligations to a minimum but nonetheless choose to actually pay their taxes, could be said to engage in voluntary taxation. Of course, one can also contribute to society by participating in engaging in philanthropy (charitable giving), but this cannot be a substitute for paying tax. 

But why have mandatory taxation, rather than voluntary taxation? A historic example might be instructive. In ancient Athens, the wealthy had a moral obligation to pay a periodic voluntary contribution (‘liturgy’). They paid for religious festivals and military expeditions which benefited society. This progressive voluntary tax was seen as a prerequisite for democracy, and so for equal political participation (representation). Moreover, redistributive taxation thus mitigated substantial economic inequality. Nonetheless, there were ‘free-riders’ who undermined citizens’ trust and their willingness to pay. Voluntary taxation was not viable – though quite a few wealthy taxpayers voluntary and liberally complied.

The lesson to be learned is that the moral (political) obligation to pay taxes needs to be laid down in the law in order to create reciprocal trust that all citizens pay their (fair) share. This does not, however, preclude free-riding, for wealthy taxpayers and multinational corporations are often able to deftly play the (international) tax rules. Here the principle of reciprocity comes in. The principle of reciprocity underlies the obligation to obey the law and engenders a duty of fair play with regard to the obligation to pay taxes. Compliance with the law should not be reduced to minimalist rule-following, minimising one’s tax liability. And indeed, this can be seen as taxpayers voluntarily complying beyond and above the strict letter of the law. Thus, following Sloterdijk’s line of thought we might encourage wealthy (corporate) citizens to engage in these kind of voluntary donations – going beyond the strict letter of the law.[1] Moreover, taking taxpayers more seriously requires to take substantive and procedural justice seriously. Fair tax laws (substantive justice) enhance voluntary compliance. The same goes for procedural justice, e.g. legislative consultation and fair and respectful treatment of taxpayers by tax administration.

[1] See H. Gribnau, ‘Voluntary Compliance Beyond the Letter of the Law: Reciprocity and Fair Play’, in B. Peeters, H. Gribnau, and J. Badisco (eds.), Building Trust in Taxation, Cambridge, Antwerp, Portland: Intersentia 2017, pp. 18-49; and J.L.M. Gribnau, ‘Vrijwillige belastingbetaling’, NTFR 2014/818;

Foto door Helena Eriksson via onder Creative Commons licentie.

About Anna Gunn

Fiscaliste met de specialisaties EU-belastingrecht en fiscale exotica. Geruime praktijkervaring met fiscale staatssteun.

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