Document Type



Comparative and Foreign Law | Tax Law


There is broad agreement that a fair tax should be imposed in accordance with taxpayers' ability to pay. A utility-based interpretation of this standard, used in most tax policy discussions today, does not adequately reflect the its historical development and cannot escape long standing and devastating criticisms from within welfare economics and on other general grounds. This article traces the history of ability to pay, with special reference to the standard's emergence along with the British and German income tax laws, and in the theoretical literature that followed the adoption of income tax laws there and elsewhere. The article concludes that the utility-based interpretation is confusing and misleading and that an alternative interpretation is needed.