This essay discusses the policy debate concerning optimal taxation and the distribution of income. It begins with a brief overview of trends in income inequality, the leading hypothesis to explain these trends, and the distribution of the tax burden. It then considers the normative question of how the tax system should be designed. The conventional utilitarian framework is found to be wanting, as it leads to prescriptions that conflict with many individuals’ moral intuitions. The essay then explores an alternative normative framework, dubbed the Just Deserts Theory, according to which an individual’s compensation should reflect his or her social contribution.
Presidential Address, presented at Eastern Economic Association meetings