Reducing Inequality

How a citizens' council could contribute to tax justice

Most Germans would like to see a fairer distribution of income and wealth. But what that should look like is often unclear. The tax system, the most important lever, is a black box for many. A citizens' council for tax justice would be a remedy, a new study shows.

Claudia Hagen
André Stiebitz
November 13, 2023
73percent of West Germans believe that the state should get involved in reducing income disparities. In East Germany, the figure is 81 percent. Source: bpb

Most people in Germany are dissatisfied with the distribution of income and wealth among the population. According to studies, however, a widely shared sense of injustice is a major risk factor for social cohesion. However, the question of the right measures to reduce inequality is the subject of controversial debate. According to a study by Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, a citizens' council on taxes and justice can help. Co-author Christoph Trautvetter explains why a broader understanding of taxes can strengthen democracy.

For the first time in this legislative period, the federal government has set up three citizens' assemblies. Why should one of them focus on taxes and fairness?

Trautvetter: For the first time in this legislative period, the federal government has created three citizens' assemblies. Why should one of them focus on taxes and fairness?
Recent research shows: The feeling that the distribution of economic gains is not fair has become a major risk factor for social cohesion. Government fiscal policy and the tax system could provide a balance. But research also shows that for many people, government budgets and taxes are a black box. The public and political debate about them is neither inclusive nor representative. Although there is a widespread desire for greater fairness, many people find it difficult to translate this into concrete wishes for politicians.

About the person

Christoph Trautvetter

The political scientist and economist is a scientific advisor at Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit (Tax Justice Network) and co-author of the feasibility study for a citizens' council on the subject of taxes and justice.

Why do you see a citizens' assembly as an answer to these challenges? What should such an assembly look like?

Citizens' assemblies are particularly well suited to discussing complex and controversial issues. Participants in town hall meetings are randomly selected and put together to be as representative of the population as possible. The time allotted for information gathering and personal exchange helps to overcome the high barriers to understanding the issue, especially when compared to referendums. In order to allow participants to contribute their own perspectives and experiences, the Citizens' Assembly should discuss fundamental distributional issues that affect us all. However, the complexity of the issue makes the process particularly challenging. There is a wide range of best-practice experiences in this area - from the process of inviting people to participate at their doorstep, to the consultation of stakeholders, to the balanced gathering of information and moderation.

"Inequality means that people from different income groups interact less. This is a problem for democracy. This is where a citizens' assembly on taxes and justice can come in."

Quote fromEllen Ehmke, Senior Expert Inequality, Robert Bosch Stiftung

Taxes and fairness are a large and complex topic. What questions should the Citizens' Assembly address and what results can it deliver?

Ultimately, the Bundestag would have to decide on this question. We propose two questions that deal fundamentally with the fair distribution of economic resources: On the one hand, the question could be "Between performance and respect: how much inequality can democracy tolerate?" An alternative would be: "Between ecological transformation and social balance: who bears the costs?". The vast majority of participants in our mini citizens' assembly also voted in favor of this topic of distributive justice. A citizens' assembly with these questions could help to shed light on the underlying reasons for the widespread sense of injustice and defuse existing conflicts. It could define how much inequality we accept as a society and how we can effectively limit it. It could, for example, provide a guideline for the socio-ecological transformation or for a reform of the taxation of work and wealth.

Citizens' councils are not the only instrument you recommend in the study. What else and why?

In the very likely event that there is currently no majority in the Bundestag for a citizens' assembly on the topic of justice and taxes, we suggest taking up the topic in a citizens' assembly organized by civil society. Or to develop an informed opinion on the topic from the middle of society in a more scientific format. An example of this could be the Deliberative Opinion Poll format developed in the USA. We also propose that the controversial debate on inheritance tax be accompanied by a combination of protected debate between politics, administration, business and organized civil society with a citizen participation format. Overall, active educational and public relations work on the topic of justice and taxes is needed in order to increase public understanding of the issue in the long term. This is crucial for social cohesion and therefore the future of our democracy.



A citizens' council on justice and taxes

Download (German)

A feasibility study by Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit (Tax Justice Network) for German federal policy.


Download (German)
You could also be interested in
Participants in a citizens' council in Berlin discuss

Democracy is not a question of money

Trust in democracy in Germany is closely linked to personal income. A citizens' council for tax justice could be a remedy, says Ellen Ehmke.
People of different genders and backgrounds in rows of seats, viewed from the side, vote on something with cards held high

How citizen participation strengthens a vibrant democracy

Citizen participation strengthens trust in democracy and brings politics and citizens closer together. Read more about where and how the...