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A Theory of Top Income Taxation and Social Insurance


  • Francisco M. Gonzalez

    (Department of Economics, University of Waterloo)

  • Jean-Francois Wen

    (Department of Economics, University of Calgary)


The development of the welfare state in the Western economies between 1930 and 1990 coincided with a puzzling pattern in the taxation of top incomes. Effective tax rates at the top increased sharply but then gradually decreased, even as social transfers continued rising. We propose a new theory of the development of the welfare state to explain these facts. Our main insight is that social insurance and top income taxation are substitutes for averting social confl?ict. We emphasize the role of the Great Depression as a source of aggregate risk, and argue that the rise of the welfare state can be understood as a process of exploiting efficiency gains in response to gradual technological improvements in the provision of social insurance. Our detailed arguments build on the policy histories of the United States, Great Britain, and Sweden.

Suggested Citation

  • Francisco M. Gonzalez & Jean-Francois Wen, 2013. "A Theory of Top Income Taxation and Social Insurance," Working Papers 1306, University of Waterloo, Department of Economics, revised Oct 2013.
  • Handle: RePEc:wat:wpaper:1306

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2007. "How Progressive is the U.S. Federal Tax System? A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(1), pages 3-24, Winter.
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    6. Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, 2000. "Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 115(4), pages 1167-1199.
    7. Ernesto Dal Bó & Pedro Dal Bó & Jason Snyder, 2009. "Political Dynasties," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 76(1), pages 115-142.
    8. Roland Benabou, 2000. "Unequal Societies: Income Distribution and the Social Contract," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 96-129, March.
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    10. Lindert,Peter H., 2009. "Growing Public," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521529174, March.
    11. Atkinson, Anthony B., 1995. "The Welfare State and Economic Performance," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 48(2), pages 171-98, June.
    12. Roland Bénabou, 1996. "Inequality and Growth," NBER Chapters,in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1996, Volume 11, pages 11-92 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. Aidt, T.S. & Dutta, Jayasri & Loukoianova, Elena, 2006. "Democracy comes to Europe: Franchise extension and fiscal outcomes 1830-1938," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 50(2), pages 249-283, February.
    14. Atkinson, Tony & Leigh, Andrew, 2010. "The Distribution of Top Incomes in Five Anglo-Saxon Countries over the Twentieth Century," IZA Discussion Papers 4937, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    15. A. B. Atkinson, 2004. "Income Tax and Top Incomes over the Twentieth Century," Hacienda Pública Española, IEF, vol. 168(1), pages 123-141, march.
    16. Persson, Torsten & Tabellini, Guido, 1994. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 600-621, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. B. Cecilia Garcia-Medina & Jean-Francois Wen, "undated". "Income Instability and Fiscal Progression," Working Papers 2015-01, Department of Economics, University of Calgary, revised 12 Jan 2015.
    2. Sheung-Chi Chow & Ma. Rebecca Valenzuela & Wing-Keung Wong, 2016. "New Tests for Richness and Poorness:A Stochastic Dominance Analysis of Income Distributions in Hong Kong," Monash Economics Working Papers 25-16, Monash University, Department of Economics.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D30 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - General
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General
    • H50 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - General
    • P16 - Economic Systems - - Capitalist Systems - - - Political Economy of Capitalism

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