Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.5.: The Power to Tax - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution)
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1.5.: The Power to Tax - James M. Buchanan, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 (The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution) 
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 9 The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of a Fiscal Constitution, Foreword by Geoffrey Brennan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Foreword and coauthor note © 2000 Liberty Fund, Inc. © 1980 Cambridge University Press.
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The Power to Tax
For the ordinary citizen, the power to tax is the most familiar manifestation of the government’s power to coerce. This power to tax involves the power to impose, on individuals and private institutions more generally, charges that can be met only by a transfer to government of economic resources, or financial claims to such resources—charges that carry with them effective powers of enforcement under the very definition of the taxing power. To be sure, governments may use tax revenues for financing public goods or transfers that citizens-taxpayers desire. But we must distinguish sharply here between a rationalization for the government’s possession of the power to tax and an understanding of that power in and of itself. The power to tax, per se, does not carry with it any obligation to use the tax revenue raised in any particular way. The power to tax does not logically imply the nature of spending.
Seen in this way, the power to “tax” is simply the power to “take.” If the government wishes to obtain a particular piece of property, it is of no account whether it does so simply by direct appropriation or by purchase together with a tax imposed on the original owner amounting to the full purchase price. Both government and the owner are in an identical position after government action, irrespective of the precise details of the means of appropriation. If any distinction between taking and taxing is to be sustained, therefore, the tax alternative must involve certain additional requirements not present with direct appropriation. For example, if the power to tax is constrained by some generality-uniformity requirements that all individuals in similar circumstances (e.g., with the same aggregate net wealth) should pay an identical tax, then it may be that, whereas the direct appropriation alternative might survive electoral scrutiny, the tax alternative would not do so. In this case, the generality requirement ensures (or, more accurately, increases the likelihood) that electoral processes will operate within tolerable limits: fiscal constraints complement electoral constraints.
In other examples, the precise analytic details of which are spelled out within the body of this book, fiscal constraints may actually substitute for electoral constraints, in the sense that they are effective even when electoral constraints are not. In all cases, however, the role of fiscal rules is to limit and appropriately direct the coercive power of government, as embodied most conspicuously in its power to tax.
Historically, of course, governments have possessed genuine powers to tax, although representatives of the citizenry seem to have recognized the sweeping import of such powers. Controls over the sovereign have been exercised through constraints on the taxing authority. The ascendancy of the British Parliament through its ability to restrict the revenues of the monarchy is a part of our political heritage. Even in the collectively dominated era of the late twentieth century, in most countries there remain nominal legal constraints on government’s taxing activities.
All constitutional rules may be interpreted as limiting the potential power. That focus rules out explicit consideration on nonfiscal constitutional constraints in this book. We must drastically restrict the domain of our discussion to get within manageable bounds. Similarly, the power to tax is not the only dimension to the government’s coercive power, although it is a major one. As we have emphasized, our focus here is on the power to tax and on constraints on that power. That focus rules out explicit consideration on nonfiscal constitutional rules, such as those that might be imposed through definition of franchise, voting rules, legislative and judicial powers, and so on. We cannot, however, rule out the possibility of significant interdependencies between fiscal constraints and other constraints. The assumptions made about other constraints assumed to be operative will vary somewhat from chapter to chapter. We shall, at the relevant points, attempt to specify clearly what these assumptions are—but by and large, we will not seek to justify them, since in the main they serve only an analytic function. There is, however, one crucial assumption which clearly underlies the whole constitutional construction—that of enforceability.