UNIFORMITY AS A POLICY OBJECTIVE
Richard R. Almy
Uniformity as a policy objective is so imbedded in tax law and practice that we seldom give it second thought. The fact that business property often is subject to non-uniform taxation makes a review of the policy of uniformity appropriate. Questions that might be asked include: How did the policy come about? What does it mean? Where are we? Where should we be? And how can we get there?
Records of taxation begin a few millennia before Christ. Over the centuries, political and economic observers have proposed criteria for acceptable taxes. These fall into administrative, social justice, economic, and political groups. Some criteria are complementary; others are mutually contradictory. In the final analysis, most are based on common sense. Notions of fairness, equity, and uniformity predominate.
Adam Smith 1776 landmark treatise on market economics, The Wealth of Nations, provides a convenient beginning for my examination of uniformity as a policy objective. He propounded four maxims of taxation. Smith's first maxim (equality) states: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state" ( Smith 1937: 777). Smith equated equality in taxation with "ability to pay," which in his view meant proportional taxation.
A statement attributed to the art critic Bernard Berenson--"Governments last as long as the undertaxed can defend themselves against the overtaxed"--succinctly states the wisdom of uniform taxation. Governments wishing to maintain popular support must concede the desirability of uniform taxation. Uniformity may also have a fiscal benefit. The overvalued object loudest to high taxes, causing governments to limit tax rates, resulting in the undervalued paying less taxes than they would be