Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Level or Concentration? A Cross-national Analysis of Public Attitudes Towards Taxation Policies

  • 376 Accesses

  • 3 Citations


This article examines the role of income status and policy context in jointly determining public responses to taxation policies. Based upon the notion that taxpayers’ self-interested preferences are inextricably intertwined with the policy context, I hypothesise that high-income taxpayers react differently to taxation policies depending on their perceived tax burden associated with tax policy structures. Using international social survey data, I find that the link between income and tax support is conditioned by the tax system within which taxpayers are contextually situated. In countries with comparatively high levels of direct taxes, high-income taxpayers react more negatively to higher and more progressive taxation than do low-income counterparts. In contrast, in low-tax societies, attitudinal cleavages among income classes become less intense. Moreover, the results reveal that the impact of income on tax attitudes does not significantly vary across countries with different degrees of tax concentration. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of these findings and directions for further research.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Of course, this is not to say that tax resistance will be absent in low-tax societies nor that tax level is the only cause of a protest movement. For instance, Martin (2008) argues that in the United States not every tax increase (i.e., the absolute amount of taxes) causes a tax revolt but that American taxpayers react angrily when they understand that a policy change undermines their informal tax privileges—i.e., specific tax exemptions not codified in law but are part of the tax system in practice—that provide them with a shelter from potential market anomalies.

  2. 2.

    This is not to say that there is no relationship between indirect tax policies and mass opinion.

  3. 3.

    Their work differs from the present study in that they assessed ‘social class’ using the International Socio-Economic Index (ISEI) and did not associate income status with tax preferences (as argued earlier, it is income position that directly determines one’s actual and perceived tax burden and thus contributes to the formation of tax policy opinion), and in that they employed different measures of ‘tax policy schemes’ and ‘tax attitudes’.

  4. 4.

    The included countries are Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Slovak Republic (available from a separate data file), South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

  5. 5.

    Respondents aged 17 or younger were omitted.

  6. 6.

    One disadvantage of using this question is that the word ‘taxes’ covers a wide variety of taxes including indirect taxes (i.e., taxes on goods and services). Ideally, ‘taxes’ should only refer to direct income taxes because the present study argues that tax attitudes are jointly motivated by income status and direct income taxes.

  7. 7.

    ‘Much too high’ and ‘too high’ were coded as −1, while ‘much too low’ and ‘too low’ were coded as +1.

  8. 8.

    For several countries, household income is offered on an annual, not a monthly, basis. To gain comparability across countries, annual incomes were divided by 12.

  9. 9.

    Household size ranges from 1 to 34 (mean = 2.7; SD 1.4). To reduce the influence of outlying values, respondents with 9 or more household members (0.2 %) were recoded as 8.

  10. 10.

    Respondents with zero income (0.3 %), that is, Ln(0), were dropped from the data.

  11. 11.

    Subjective (explanatory) variables such as political trust, political ideology, and self-rated social class were omitted from the analysis to avoid potential endogeneity issues.

  12. 12.

    For related arguments, see Roberts and Hite (1994), Roberts et al. (1994), but see Edlund (2003).

  13. 13.

    The four country-level variables were standardised prior to analysis for ease of interpretation.

  14. 14.

    In this regard, Edlund (2003) notes that “[t]he comparatively low degree of complexity and high degree of standardization, i.e. the high degree of system transparency, is likely to advance public understanding of social and tax policy” (p. 151, italics in original). Moreover, it could be argued that the better educated are more likely to accurately assess the impact of particular tax structures on their households.


  1. Andreß, H.-J., & Heien, T. (2001). Four worlds of welfare state attitudes? A comparison of Germany, Norway, and the United States. European Sociological Review, 17(4), 337–356.

  2. Ariely, G. (2011). Why people (dis)like the public service: Citizen perception of the public service and the NPM doctrine. Politics & Policy, 39(6), 997–1019.

  3. Arts, W., & Gelissen, J. (2001). Welfare states, solidarity and justice principles: Does the type really matter? Acta Sociologica, 44(4), 283–299.

  4. Barnes, L. (2015). The size and shape of government: Preferences over redistributive tax policy. Socio-Economic Review, 13(1), 55–78.

  5. Bartels, L. M. (2005). Homer gets a tax cut: Inequality and public policy in the American mind. Perspectives on Politics, 3(1), 15–31.

  6. Bean, C., & Papadakis, E. (1998). A comparison of mass attitudes towards the welfare state in different institutional regimes, 1985–1990. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 10(3), 211–236.

  7. Beck, P. A., & Dye, T. (1982). Sources of public opinion on taxes: The Florida case. Journal of Politics, 44(1), 172–182.

  8. Beck, P. A., Rainey, H. G., & Traut, C. (1990). Disadvantage, disaffection, and race as divergent bases for citizen fiscal policy preferences. Journal of Politics, 52(1), 71–93.

  9. Bowler, S., & Donovan, T. (1995). Popular responsiveness to taxation. Political Research Quarterly, 48(1), 79–99.

  10. Brooks, C., & Manza, J. (2006). Why do welfare states persist? Journal of Politics, 68(4), 816–827.

  11. Buhmann, B., Rainwater, L., Schmaus, G., & Smeeding, T. M. (1988). Equivalence scales, well-being, inequality, and poverty: Sensitivity estimates across ten countries using the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) database. Review of Income and Wealth, 34(2), 115–142.

  12. Coughlin, R. M. (1980). Ideology, public opinion and welfare policy: Attitudes toward taxes and spending in industrialized societies. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California.

  13. Easton, D. (1953). The political system: An inquiry into the state of political science. New York: Knopf.

  14. Edlund, J. (1999a). Trust in government and welfare regimes: Attitudes to redistribution and financial cheating in the USA and Norway. European Journal of Political Research, 35(3), 341–370.

  15. Edlund, J. (1999b). Attitudes towards tax reform and progressive taxation: Sweden 1991–96. Acta Sociologica, 42(4), 337–355.

  16. Edlund, J. (2000). Public attitudes towards taxation: Sweden 1981–1997. Scandinavian Political Studies, 23(1), 37–65.

  17. Edlund, J. (2003). Attitudes towards taxation: Ignorant and incoherent? Scandinavian Political Studies, 26(2), 145–167.

  18. Erikson, R., & Goldthorpe, J. H. (1992). The constant flux: Study of class mobility in industrial societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  19. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  20. Finseraas, H. (2009). Income inequality and demand for redistribution: A multilevel analysis of European public opinion. Scandinavian Political Studies, 32(1), 94–119.

  21. Ganzeboom, H. B. G., De Graaf, P. M., & Treiman, D. J. (1992). A standard international socio-economic index of occupational status. Social Science Research, 21(1), 1–56.

  22. Gelissen, J. (2000). Popular support for institutionalised solidarity: A comparison between European welfare states. International Journal of Social Welfare, 9(4), 285–300.

  23. Goldstein, H. (1995). Multilevel statistical models. London: Edward Arnold.

  24. Hasenfeld, Y., & Rafferty, J. A. (1989). The determinants of public attitudes toward the welfare state. Social Forces, 67(4), 1027–1048.

  25. Hibbs, D. A., & Madsen, H. J. (1981). Public reactions to the growth of taxation and government expenditure. World Politics, 33(3), 413–435.

  26. Hout, M. (2004). Getting the most out of the GSS income measures. GSS Methodological Report No. 101. Chicago, NORC.

  27. IMF. (2005). World economic outlook database (September). Washington, DC: IMF.

  28. Jæger, M. M. (2006). What make people support public responsibility for welfare provision: Self-interest or political ideology? A longitudinal approach. Acta Sociologica, 49(3), 321–338.

  29. Jaime-Castillo, A. M., & Sáez-Lozano, J. L. (2014). Preferences for tax schemes in OECD countries, self-interest and ideology. International Political Science Review, online first (8 July 2014).

  30. Joumard, I., Pisu, M., & Bloch, D. (2012). Tackling income inequality: The role of taxes and transfers. OECD Journal: Economic Studies, 2(1), 37–70.

  31. Kakwani, N. C. (1977). Measurement of tax progressivity: An international comparison. Economic Journal, 87(345), 71–80.

  32. Korpi, W. (1983). The democratic class struggle. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.

  33. Korpi, W., & Palme, J. (1998). The paradox of redistribution and strategies of equality: Welfare state institutions, inequality, and poverty in the Western countries. American Sociological Review, 63(5), 661–687.

  34. Kreft, I., & De Leeuw, J. (1998). Introducing multilevel modeling. London: Sage.

  35. Larsen, C. A. (2007). The institutional logic of welfare attitudes: How welfare regimes influence public support. Comparative Political Studies, 41(2), 145–168.

  36. Linos, K., & West, M. (2003). Self-interest, social beliefs, and attitudes to redistribution: Re-addressing the issue of cross-national variation. European Sociological Review, 19(4), 393–409.

  37. Lowery, D., & Sigelman, L. (1981). Understanding the tax revolt: Eight explanations. American Political Science Review, 75(4), 963–974.

  38. Martin, I. W. (2008). The permanent tax revolt: How the property tax transformed American politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  39. Meltzer, A. H., & Richard, S. F. (1981). A rational theory of the size of government. Journal of Political Economy, 89(5), 914–927.

  40. Mettler, S., & Soss, J. (2004). The consequences of public policy for democratic citizenship: Bridging policy studies and mass politics. Perspectives on Politics, 2(1), 55–73.

  41. OECD. (2005). Income distribution database (IDD). Paris: OECD.

  42. OECD. (2006). National accounts statistics. Paris: OECD.

  43. OECD. (2008). Growing unequal? Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries. Paris: OECD.

  44. OECD. (2012). Eurostat-OECD methodological manual on purchasing power parities. Eurostat Methodological Working Papers 2012 Edition. Paris, OECD.

  45. Papadakis, E., & Bean, C. (1993). Popular support for the welfare state: A comparison between institutional regimes. Journal of Public Policy, 13(3), 227–254.

  46. Pierson, P. (1993). When effect becomes cause: Policy feedback and political change. World Politics, 45(4), 595–628.

  47. Rasbash, J., Steele, F., Browne, W. J., & Goldstein, H. (2014). A user’s guide to MLwiN, v2.31. Centre for Multilevel Modelling, University of Bristol.

  48. Roberts, K. W. S. (1977). Voting over income tax schedules. Journal of Public Economics, 8(3), 329–340.

  49. Roberts, M. L., & Hite, P. A. (1994). Progressive taxation, fairness, and compliance. Law & Policy, 16(1), 27–48.

  50. Roberts, M. L., Hite, P. A., & Bradley, C. F. (1994). Understanding attitudes toward progressive taxation. Public Opinion Quarterly, 58(2), 165–190.

  51. Romer, T. (1975). Individual welfare, majority voting and the properties of a linear income tax. Journal of Public Economics, 4(2), 163–185.

  52. Rothstein, B. (1998). Just institutions matter: The moral and political logic of the universal welfare state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  53. Rothstein, B. (2002). The universal welfare state as a social dilemma. Rationality and Society, 13(2), 213–233.

  54. Rudolph, T. J. (2009). Political trust, ideology, and public support for tax cuts. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(1), 144–158.

  55. Rueda, D. (2014). Food comes first, then morals: Redistribution preferences, altruism and group heterogeneity in Western Europe. CAGE Working Paper Series No. 200. Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).

  56. Rueda, D., Segmueller, D., & Idema, T. (2014). The effects of income expectations on redistribution preferences in Western Europe. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

  57. Rueda, D., & Stegmueller, D. (2015). The externalities of inequality: Fear of crime and preferences for redistribution in Western Europe. American Journal of Political Science, online first (21 August 2015).

  58. Schmidt-Catran, A. W. (2014). Economic inequality and public demand for redistribution: Combining cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence. Socio-Economic Review, online first (3 October 2014).

  59. Sears, D. O., & Citrin, J. (1982). Tax revolt: Something for nothing in California. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  60. Sears, D. O., & Funk, C. L. (1990). The limited effect of economic self-interest on the political attitudes of the mass public. Journal of Behavioral Economics, 19(3), 247–271.

  61. Skocpol, T. (1992). Protecting soldiers and mothers: The political origins of social policy in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  62. Snijders, T. A. B., & Bosker, R. J. (1999). Multilevel analysis: An introduction to basic and advanced multilevel modeling. London: Sage.

  63. Soss, J., & Schram, S. F. (2007). A public transformed? Welfare reform as policy feedback. American Political Science Review, 101(1), 111–127.

  64. Sumino, T. (2014). Escaping the curse of economic self-interest: An individual-level analysis of public support for the welfare state in Japan. Journal of Social Policy, 43(1), 109–133.

  65. Svallfors, S. (1997). Worlds of welfare and attitudes to redistribution: A comparison of eight Western nations. European Sociological Review, 13(3), 283–304.

  66. Svallfors, S. (2003). Welfare regimes and welfare opinions: A comparison of eight Western countries. Social Indicators Research, 64(3), 495–520.

  67. Svallfors, S. (2004). Class, attitudes and the welfare state: Sweden in comparative perspective. Social Policy and Administration, 38(2), 119–138.

  68. Wang, C., & Caminada, K. (2011). Leiden LIS budget incidence fiscal redistribution dataset. http://www.law.leidenuniv.nl/org/fisceco/economie/hervormingsz/datawelfarestate.html. Accessed 16 July 2015.

  69. Wilensky, H. (1975). The welfare state and equality: Structure and ideological roots of public expenditures. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  70. Wilensky, H. (1976). The ‘new corporatism’, centralization, and the welfare state. London: Sage.

Download references


I am grateful to Professors Stephen D Fisher and Tamas David-Barrett for stimulating discussions and encouragements throughout the research period. I also wish to thank three anonymous referees for their thought-provoking comments on an earlier version of this article.

Author information

Correspondence to Takanori Sumino.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sumino, T. Level or Concentration? A Cross-national Analysis of Public Attitudes Towards Taxation Policies. Soc Indic Res 129, 1115–1134 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-1169-1

Download citation


  • Class politics
  • Policy feedback
  • Income status
  • Tax policy
  • Public opinion