Tax and the Philosopher's Stone
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
In the Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford 2002), Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel discuss the relationship between tax policy and contemporary political philosophy. Murphy and Nagel essentially argue for the priority of political philosophy over tax policy. For them, there is little room for tax policy per se; they argue that tax policy ought to serve the ends of a philosophical conception of justice. They maintain that questions of fairness are, in and of themselves, irrelevant to tax policy, which should be understood as a slave to philosophical conceptions of justice. While we embrace Murphy and Nagel's central claim that it makes little sense to engage arguments over tax policy without an antecedently held conception of distributive justice and that questions of tax policy must be consistent with that conception, we argue that some aspects of their argument are ultimately too strong. Traditional metrics of tax policy analysis such as the benefit principle and the equal sacrifice principle are neither completely irrelevant to tax policy, nor inconsistent with all versions of political liberalism. We distinguish between "pre-institutional" and "post-institutional" conceptions of liberalism, and between "maximizing" and "non-maximizing" conceptions of distributive justice. We argue that while Murphy and Nagel's argument is powerful in the context of maximizing, post-institutional conceptions, it is less persuasive in the context of pre-institutional versions of liberalism and, perhaps, in the context of non-maximizing versions of post-institutional liberalism. Finally, we conclude by arguing that the central claims of Murphy and Nagel's argument are, to some extent, in tension with what they take to be their view's practical applications.