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Aligning taxes and spending: theory and experimental evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, IL, USA
George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Washington, DC, USA
*Correspondence to: Ethan Porter, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University, 805 21st NW, Suite 424, Washington, DC 20052, USA. Email:


Under what circumstances will members of the public hold positive attitudes toward new or higher taxes? While some scholars have posited that the practice of “earmarking” – designating tax revenues for a particular purpose – can increase support for taxes, the existing literature has not identified the conditions under which earmarking will prove effective in this regard. Here, we draw upon previous research on consumer behavior to hypothesize that support for earmarked taxes will be stronger when such taxes satisfy the criterion of “source–use alignment” (i.e., when the connection between the revenue source and the use for which those revenues are earmarked accords with familiar consumer fairness norms). Evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from two experiments on a sample of US residents matched to Census data, in which subjects were randomly assigned to read descriptions of hypothetical earmarked taxes with varying levels of alignment. Individuals consistently expressed stronger support for earmarked taxes that achieved source–use alignment as compared to earmarked taxes that did not satisfy the source–use alignment criterion. Our theory and results not only help to explain why some earmarked taxes are more popular than others, but also suggest a means for increasing public support for taxes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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