Revisiting the uneasy case for corporate taxation in an uneasy world

by Mihir A. Desai and Dhammika Dharmapala

31 Oct 2018
Journal of the British Academy
Number of pages
38 (pp. 247-284)

Pages in this section

Abstract: Just as the public increasingly wants corporate taxation to serve as a mechanism for ensuring that business contributes to society, the sustainability of corporate taxation is increasingly under challenge by a changing global landscape. This tension between the heightened demands placed on the corporate tax system and its reduced capacity prompts the question: How can an increasingly tenuous fiscal instrument be modified to accommodate rising expectations? In this paper, we address this question by reviewing the empirical evidence on, and conceptual underpinnings of, the corporate tax. We place the taxation of corporations in a wider context that links it to ongoing debates on corporate law and governance and on corporate social responsibility. Drawing on an agency cost perspective on the corporate tax, we argue that one approach to its reform is to focus on circumstances in which there may exist a coincidence of interests between shareholders and the general public. This perspective encompasses many of the themes of current debates surrounding the taxation of corporations. We also outline three possible alternative futures for the corporate tax that have quite different implications for efficiency and distribution. One involves enhanced multilateral cooperation to preserve the corporate tax, another involves abandoning (corporate and personal) income taxation in favour of consumption taxation, and the third entails abolishing the corporate tax (while transforming personal taxation to address the resulting tax planning opportunities for individuals).

Keywords: corporate tax; tax avoidance; corporate governance; corporate social responsibility.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 6,
supplementary issue 1 (Reforming Business for the 21st Century).

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