Monday, May 11, 2015

Bentham House conference on the Philosophical Foundations of Tax Law

Yesterday I returned from my short sojourn in London, where I attended the Third Annual Bentham House Conference: Philosophical Foundations of Tax Law, held at the University College London.  This was a very enjoyable and stimulating two-day event in which legal academics from a number of different fields (not just tax) interacted regarding a range of topics.  Murphy and Nagel's The Myth of Ownership came up a lot, as did the work of Dworkin, Rawls, and Nozick, although one of my favorite quotes from the entire session started with the words: "If you are a fan of Aquinas - and who isn't? ..."  Substantive topics included such fare as alternative tax bases (e.g., income, consumption, inheritance, endowment, and wealth), and the ethical issues associated with tax evasion, tax avoidance, and aggressive tax planning.

I presented The Mapmaker's Dilemma in Evaluating High-End Inequality, based on chapter 2 of my book-in-progress, Enviers, Rentiers, Arrivistes, and the Point-One Percent: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality.  The slides for my talk are available here.

The sessions reminded me once again of how happily unlike this horrific account my experiences in attending conferences generally are.  In tax, and I think other specialty fields in legal academics, as well as in public economics, just to name the areas best known to me, often people actually do present interesting ideas (without just droning through notes), and then have genuine interactions in the course of discussing them.  The UCL conference was a nice exemplar of the small-meeting manifestation of this, in which there is just one session at a time featuring a smallish group over a couple of days.  A good big-meeting version is the National Tax Association's Annual Conference on Taxation, featuring a cast of hundreds and six to seven sessions at a time.

The small-conference version tends to work best, in my experience, when, like this one, it isn't just a bunch of people who already know each other well, but also features international or interdisciplinary cross-pollination.  You actually form a small society for a couple of days, pleasant itself and hopefully with lasting residue.

Other highlights of the trip, for me, included finding paradise shortly after my jet-lagged arrival in London, at the London Review of Books bookshop and affiliated teashop/cakeshop, and then staggering across the street to the British Museum, where I found a very amusing temporary show, Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon.  Here is a photo I took of a postcard reproduction of one of the more amusing prints there.  It shows a charming fella who apparently recognizes the infant Napoleon Bonaparte's future upside potential.

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