“Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled a new wealth tax proposal last week that she says will raise — along with her previously announced wealth tax plan — $3.75 trillion over the next decade. Senator Bernie Sanders says his wealth tax will yield $4.35 trillion over the same period.
We fear these figures are vast overestimates. The likeliest outcome is that a wealth tax will raise exactly zero dollars. The problem, alas, is the Constitution. The Warren and Sanders plans run headlong into more than two centuries of precedent that cast doubt on the constitutionality of wealth taxation.
We are tax law professors who identify as liberal Democrats, donate to Democratic candidates, publicly opposed the Trump tax cuts and strongly support higher taxes on the affluent. We are heartened that prominent Democratic presidential candidates are taking the problem of wealth inequality very seriously. We are worried, though, that leading figures in our party are coalescing around an idea whose constitutionality is doubtful at best.
The constitutional objection to wealth taxation is based on two clauses that require any “direct tax” to be apportioned among the states based on population. So, since 12 percent of the population lives in California, Californians must pay 12 percent of any direct tax.