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Monday, January 30, 2006

The Role of Religious Faith in Tax Policy Analysis

Michael Livingston's paper, Rendering Unto Caesar: Religious Perspectives on Progressive and Flat Taxation, which he presented at UCLA on Friday (blogged here), has sparked a spirited blogosphere discussion.

Vic Fleischer gave a first hand report of the talk here, noting:

There is no question that one needs a theory of distributive justice to form a complete picture of tax policy. Some people may derive that theory from religious faith, others from philosophy. I have no problem with those who derive their preferences from religious faith. As a matter of scholarly discourse, I find it more useful to concentrate on the philosophy side. And even within philosophy, convincing others that one approach is better than another feels to me like trying to convert someone to another faith. As a tax policy scholar, I have no comparative advantage here.

Implicitly I'm arguing that traditional tools of tax policy, including public finance economics, can sometimes lead us to demonstrably right and wrong answers about the design of a tax system. I am a skeptic about the ability of law professors to convince anyone that the top marginal rate should be 35% by appealing to Rawls OR the Bible. But I do I have a lot of faith, so to speak, in tax law scholarship and economics to speak to the proper design of the system.

Nate Olman has responded in "Religious Arguments in the Law" or "Reasoning in God's Presence," which concludes:

Thinking about a policy question in religious terms -- in religious language if you will -- is going to change how one thinks about it. For this reason, religious arguments -- if they are well done -- are valuable even for non-believers, because they give one a new way of working through old issues. Aside from the difference that such religious thinking can make in terms of substantive outcomes, it also has value for the believer. By invoking religious texts and stories, the believer invites God into the conversation. The point is not necessarily for him to step in as the final arbiter of the dispute. Rather, it is a way of having the discussion in his presence. Cf. Isaiah 1:18 ("Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord"). It is important to realize, however, that one is having a discussion. Religious thought is not an abdication of reason or discussion; it is simply reasoning and discussion by other means.

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