Zachary Manfredi in Boston Review:
In 2017 Senator Bernie Sanders made the Republicans’ tax bill a human rights issue by connecting it to UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s investigation of “extreme poverty” in the United States. Following a meeting with Sanders, Alston castigated the legislation for its potential to exacerbate already historic levels of economic inequality and social immiseration. “Tax policy is human rights policy,” Alston had declared, and the Republican bill represented “America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world.” In the wake of the finalization of the tax law—arguably one of the greatest tax transfers of wealth to the rich in modern times—activists took up this framing, decrying the human rights implications of the law in creating radical economic disparities.
In the years since the Trump tax legislation took effect, major progressive political figures in the United States have continued to draw rhetorical connections among tax policy, extreme inequality, and human rights. Throughout his 2020 primary campaign, Sanders offered proposals to guarantee housing, medical care, and education “as human rights” and explicitly tied funding of these novel social programs to a wealth tax. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal have similarly introduced the Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act aimed at providing funding for public services. And Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for the United States to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as part of her legislative package for “A Just Society.” In making the case for legislative proposals addressing housing justice, immigrant and workers’ rights, and the federal poverty line, Ocasio-Cortez has frequently framed progressive taxation policy as a means to fund programs that would guarantee the rights elaborated in the covenant.
What is at stake in couching these visions of tax policy—a domain often sealed off from larger debates about values—in the language of human rights?