Friday, March 13, 2009

Tax policy colloquium on David Duff's "Tax Fairness and the Tax Mix"

Yesterday we had our ninth session of the year, and last before spring break, discussing the above article by David Duff, who has long been at the University of Toronto Law School but is moving to the University of British Columbia Law School, in Vancouver. (In weather terms, this is a bit like trading Boston for Seattle, which sounds pretty good to me after the 3-and-counting monstrously brutal winter months that we've had here in New York.)

The paper posits that different fairness norms apply to different elements in the tax structure. On reading the paper, this struck me as requiring one to deny or disregard the fungibility of money. But, as often happens at the colloquium lunches in advance of the sessions, we discerned that he actually meant something a bit different.

David classifies himself in philosophical terms as a liberal egalitarian, opposed to the welfarist and libertarian traditions, but he disclaims what at times can be the vindictive face of liberal egalitarianism - its suggestion, in some proponents' hands, that we should turn our backs on people who have made mistakes, rather than trying to help them out, because somehow this "respects" them more as moral agents. I personally am quite willing to suffer "disrespect" in the form of compassionate rescue if I ever need it. Another occasional implication of liberal egalitarianism that he disclaims is that equalizing opportunity downward is just as good as doing so upward. (This led to the retort at one conference I once attended that the best possible way of implementing equal opportunity is through global thermonuclear war - then we'd never have to worry again about some people having better opportunities than others.) What he does mean by liberal egalitarianism, however, was less clear - though this was partly our fault not his, because as usual we didn't get to the phantom "Topic 3" on our discussion list.

The paper perplexed me a bit by arguing that, wholly without regard to distributional issues, a VAT with an exemption amount would be the right way to pay for public goods. To me, it would seem that the only reason for having high earners pay more than low earners is distributional. David gets there by following Blum and Kalven to the effect that we should totally ignore benefit from public spending and pretend it was wasted, for purposes of deciding who should pay. He then argues for equalizing individuals' total sacrifice, as a loosely libertarian-style privileged baseline - from which (unlike the libertarians) he would then be willing to redistribute as well, but in his mind through a fundamentally different exercise.

I argued in response, inter alia, that "total sacrifice" is incoherent. E.g., just because we can't measure benefits going the other way doesn't mean that we should counter-factually pretend that they're zero. More generally, there simply is no meaningful baseline of "public goods without financing" - his revision to the libertarians' supposed state of nature - from which to measure total sacrifice. Nor would I find the exercise normatively motivated even if I thought it was coherently definable. But to each his own, and one need not always agree to have a civil and productive discussion.

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