Tax Earmarking and Political Participation: Theory and Evidence from Ghana

Earmarking taxes for specific expenditure categories is thought to be a crucial factor in the development of the early modern European fiscal states and remains a widespread, yet fiscally rigid and oftentimes inefficient, policy tool. I explore a decidedly political logic to the puzzling prevalence of tax earmarking. In this paper, I test an initial micro-behavioural condition for this political logic of earmarking: that general fund taxation may produce more political mobilization than earmarking would, threatening political survival of governments in low-capacity states. I outline two interrelated mechanisms for this expectation: citizens’ discontent with the absence of government-provided information about the revenue uses of taxpayers’ money, and anticipation of increased government discretion over spending policy. I design an online survey experiment with 874 citizens in Ghana to test these implications. The experiment randomly varies different proposals of how to use increased tax revenue from a recent government fiscal capacity program and measures citizens’ intentions to engage politically. Results indicate that earmarking does not produce greater bottom-up accountability pressures than general fund taxation.