Thursday, June 16, 2005

Another conference

I’ve been silent here lately due to a just-completed trip to La Jolla, first to attend a rather unusual conference and then for a brief family vacation.

The conference, entitled “Taxation, Economic Prosperity, and Distributive Justice,” was run by the Social Philosophy and Policy Center out of Bowling Green, Ohio, with support from the Liberty Fund, which I gather is a very active funding organization. I gather that both the Center and the Fund have a strong libertarian focus, although it appears with considerable open-mindedness and willingness to talk to non-like-minded people.

The conference had about 15 active participants. Three were public economics types (Michigan economist Joel Slemrod, USC law prof Ed McCaffery, and me). One was a tax historian (Elliot Brownlee of UC Santa Barbara), one a legal scholar with general interests (Kevin Kordana of Virginia), and the rest were conservatives or libertarians (including Jonathan Macey of Yale Law School and Richard Wagner of George Mason Economics) who do not accept welfare economics.

I remember once attending a Critical Tax Conference in Buffalo in which there were just a few public economics types and the rest were mainly in critical legal studies. The interplay was similar, except that the dialogue was with people who rejected our approach from the left rather than from the right. Both occasions were quite civil, however, which is more than one can always say of conferences that are limited to tax professors from law schools.

This time around, I attracted considerable (albeit courteous) flak for taking an openly utilitarian perspective in analyzing household tax and transfer issues (e.g., treatment of married couples versus singles, secondary earners, households with and without children, etc.). To many of the other attendees, utilitarianism and Rawls both lead straight to Sweden, a destination to be regarded with great distaste, partly on empirical grounds (via high estimates of government malevolence and incompetence), but mainly on the view that the rights of the individual to his [no women at this conference] talents and labor and the currently observed pre-tax market return thereto are paramount.

One of the pro-libertarian papers wrestled with the problem of (1) agreeing that a traveler facing death from starvation or exposure (in peril through no fault of his own) could violate property rights by breaking into an empty cottage, without (2) embarking on the road to Sweden via generalization of the point that need may outweigh property rights. Another paper posited that justice consists of people getting what they deserve, with symmetrical distaste for the case where good people get less than they deserve and that where bad people get more. I noted that this is not a very beneficent standard, especially given that none of us is perfect. The author, who just the previous day had been pressing me on the tensions between utilitarianism and our moral intuitions, replied that, yes, he completely rejects beneficence as a moral principle. (As for me, I’ll take mercy over justice any day of the week.)

Jonathan Macey’s paper mentioned that Robert Nozick argues for the primacy of property rights - “rather convincingly, I might add” - an aside on which he does not elaborate. He then argues for a constitutional amendment expanding the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment so that taxation, just like seizing someone’s house, requires “just compensation.” Unclear what this is supposed to mean given the problem of pricing public goods, not to mention evaluating the effects on property values of the basic legal system (police, enforcement of contracts, etc.), or for that matter national defense. I would not expect this proposal to get very far.

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