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A Defense of Source Rules in International Taxation

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The concept of “source” is central to the functioning of the current international tax system. To the extent the “source” of income is meant to reflect the spatial location of income; however, many academic commentators have come to regard the concept as completely incoherent. Further, that incoherence is viewed as a partial explanation of the perceived artificiality and frailties of current instantiations of source rules. In this Paper I make three basic claims. First, it is in fact coherent to conceive of the source concept in terms of the spatial location of income. Second, most of the problems with current instantiations of source rules can be understood as reflections of fundamental complications in designing an income tax in a closed economy and thus have nothing to do with spatial indeterminacy. This observation allows for incremental improvement to source rules in the same fashion as one can make incremental improvement to a closed economy income tax. Third, from an efficiency perspective, a novel and ambitious way to approach source rules would be to use such rules to segregate rents from non-rents and mobile income from non-mobile income. Traditionally, scholars have viewed the efficiency characteristics of a rents-only tax as an affirmative argument for cashflow taxes over income taxes. Holding the existence of the income tax constant, however, source rules could theoretically achieve an efficient result on this dimension. The practical implementation hurdles, though, are substantial.