Contractualism and Tax Governance: Hobbes and Hume

Hans Gribnau, Carl Dijkstra

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientific


In early modern history the concept of social contract was developed to establish sovereign authority and citizens’ duty to obey the law. The social contract marks the transition from the state of nature to the civil state. The contract or covenant is concluded by self-interested individuals driven by the fear of death. What Hobbes proposes is a covenant ‘of every man with every man’ whereby each gives up his right of governing himself to one man or assembly of men, on condition that the others do so too. The sovereign is given authority by covenant but he is not a party to this, so he cannot forfeit the authority given to him. Natural unsociability of men accounts for almost absolute sovereignty which translates in Hobbes’ thought on law and taxation.
For Hobbes, tax laws are an expression of the sovereign will one has been necessitated to submit to. Nonetheless, the wise sovereign has certain duties that follow from the law of nature, such as equal taxation – that is, proportionate equality between burdens and benefits measured by consumption.
Taxes are for Hume, unlike Hobbes, partially voluntary. Hume also advocates taxes on consumption, presuming that these are (partially) voluntary and incentivize citizens to work harder in order to afford more levied goods and services. Therefore, one can argue that in Humean political philosophy taxation contributes to social welfare and thus community spirit. Hence, tax governance is not primarily seen as coercing unsociable taxpayers. Tax law is not conceptualised as a command.
In this chapter we will examine these two radically different views on man, consent, contract, sovereignty and society entailing diverging conceptions of tax governance: that is, the legitimate exercise of the power to tax, and the ensuing relationship between government and taxpayers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in the History of Tax Law
EditorsPeter Harris, Dominic de Cogan
Place of PublicationOxford/Portland:
Number of pages38
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Social contract theory, contractualism, Hobbes, Hume, tax compliance, letter of the law, spirit of the law, legalism, formalism,


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