TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sheffrin: Tax Fairness and Folk Justice

Tax FairnessSteven M. Sheffrin (Tulane), Tax Fairness and Folk Justice (Cambridge University Press, Oct. 28, 2013):

Why have Americans severely limited the estate and gift tax -- ostensibly targeted at only the very wealthy -- but greatly expanded the subsidies to low-wage workers through the Earned Income Tax Credit, now the single largest poverty program in the country? Why do people hate the property tax so much, yet seemingly revolt against it only during periods of economic change? Why are some groups of taxpayers more obedient to the tax authorities than others, even when they face the same enforcement regime? These puzzling questions all revolve around perceptions of tax fairness. Is the public simply inconsistent? A sympathetic and unified explanation for these attitudes is based on understanding the everyday psychology of fairness and how it comes to be applied in taxation. This book demonstrates how a serious consideration of "folk justice" can deepen our understanding of how tax systems actually function and how they can perhaps be reformed.

A fabulous book! Filled with insights on a crucially important, but underexplored, aspect of tax policy. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the politics or sociology of taxation. -- David Gamage (UC-Berkeley)

Steve Sheffrin brings together insights from social psychology and philosophy to reconcile how economists think about tax fairness with how everyone else does. It is a fascinating ride, well worth taking, that draws on the author's familiarity with modern economics and with the details of tax systems. Sheffrin's argument that many key features of the tax system are best explained through understanding folk justice concepts is compelling and should be taken seriously by all students of taxation.  -- Joel Slemrod, University of Michigan

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