Why We Need a Human Rights Based Tax System

Today the highest earners in our country are filing taxes at rates lower than those struggling to pay rent and put food on the table for their families.  This dynamic is reaching disturbing depths as the media announces that corporate profits are at record highs while wages for people are at an all-time low.   Disparities rule the day, as the AFL-CIO releases a chart today that reflects the average CEO in states like Arizona make over 5.5 million dollars annually, where the average worker struggles to support a family at less than $34,000 a year.   Even in states like Connecticut where workers make on average a bit more, the average salary is still just $49,000 annually, while the average CEO takes over 6 million dollars home from his or her company every year.

Our current tax structure fails our schools, our health system and every other major social sector that meets the fundamental needs of our people.  But there is increasing demand that taxes and wages be set to ensure a just society and not to fuel the ongoing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few that is corroding our democratic principles.  People, through their community organizations such as the Vermont Workers' Center or United Workers in Baltimore, have launched campaigns demanding that public budgets, revenue and subsidies reflect human rights priorities rather than serve private profit.  The People’s Budget Campaign, for example, demands that the state budget put people first, meet fundamental needs, provide public services as the highest priority, and be based on equitable tax policy.   And even some of the wealthy have expressed outrage as Resource Generation launches its Tax Justice campaign today on behalf of young people of wealth in their network.   

People in the United States are awakening to the fact that our system of taxation, along with other systems that determine whether resources are democratically deployed, must be accountable to human rights obligations on the part of government. Our rights to education, health care, housing and a decent standard of living and jobs are all profoundly shaped by these resource allocations. Consequently, human rights principles must in turn shape tax and spending policy.  For too long, our political debate has been about trade-offs.  Shall we abandon our elderly or our children?  Our poor or our sick? Our schools or our hospitals?  Our libraries or our parks? If we are to be a society that values human rights, we must change the question.  No longer can we ask whose rights shall we violate this tax and budget cycle, but rather how can we create a system that ensures the rights of all.