Externalities and the Swedish Man Tax

October 25, 2005

Last year, the feminist council of Sweden’s Left Party made worldwide headlines when former party leader Gudrun Schyman proposed a radical initiative that included—among other things—a “man tax”.

The idea was to use tax policy to correct for the supposed “externality” of men’s violent behavior toward women, and use the proceeds to fund anti-domestic-violence programs.

Needless to say, the proposal was panned in the media. Now, a year later it appears Sweden’s Left Party is paying a steep political price for the radical proposal. From the Times of London:

SPARE a thought for Swedish feminists whose newly formed party is disintegrating after hardliners presented a manifesto advocating a “man tax”, the abolition of marriage and the creation of “gender-neutral” names…

When it was founded six months ago, polls showed that a quarter of voters would consider supporting Feminist Initiative in elections next year because of rising domestic violence against women and higher salaries for men.

That goodwill seems to have faded after the party’s recent founding congress, however, when radicals such as Tiina Rosenberg, a professor of gender studies, appeared to have secured control of the agenda. The resulting platform included proposals for abolishing marriage and changing the law to let people who undergo sex change operations legally alter their names…

The spectacle of militant feminism reaching into Sweden’s official institutions provoked a political scandal in which Wachenfeldt was forced to resign from her job at the shelter.

In new opinion polls only 1.3% of voters said they would vote for the feminist party.

The idea of a “man tax” may seem exotic. But is it fundamentally different from other attempts to engineer social outcomes with tax policy? It’s hard to see in what sense a “man tax” is fundamentally different from tax penalties on cigarettes and fatty foods, or tax subsidies for home ownership and child birth. All are designed to steer social outcomes in the direction preferred by lawmakers, not raise revenue efficiently.

Once we become unmoored from the principle that the function of the tax system is to raise revenue—not merely to serve as a system of penalties and benefits to guide social outcomes—there is no limit to the amount of bad policies that can be justified. And as we’ve written before, the more we ask of the tax code in terms of implementing social policy, the more it ultimately asks of us.


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