In Introduction to Tax Policy Theory, Allison Christians fulfils the Herculean task set forth in her title with deft grace and critical perspective. Christians’s short paper first elucidates three general goals of taxation from the taxing authority’s perspective, which she describes as state-building, internal management, and negotiated expansion. Then, Christians juxtaposes these goals with three metrics well-known among tax policy aficionados: equity, efficiency, and administrative capacity (which easily could be “simplicity”). Out of this analysis, Christians calls for the tax policy community to think and reflect on fundamental questions of approach and methodology—and to acknowledge the “discrepancies and weaknesses” in conventional approaches to tax policy.
Christians’s taxonomy of the goals of taxation is a major contribution, although certain to engender disagreement. Some dissention is inevitable when parsing all of human experience into three bins, each labeled with two words, and Christians presents her “imperfect” but “adequate” categories as poles, or touchstones, rather than as discrete silos.
For Christians, the project is positive, not normative. And yet, her classifications seem destined to raise questions that blur the line between positive and normative analysis. For example, Christians’s concept of state-building relies heavily on a (Foucauldian?) understanding of “control,” which has a different valence than, say, more technocratic or development-oriented versions of institutionalism. Similarly, “internal management” encompasses a tremendous variety of sub-goals, ranging from the provision of public goods to redistribution to affirmative incentives for particular activities. The differences between these sub-goals may carry more import than the differences between Christians’s headline categories. Notwithstanding these concerns, Christians’s list of taxation’s goals—and especially the idea of negotiated expansion—forces readers at least to engage the question of why we tax.
More broadly, Christians’s paper can be read as a partial rejection of current instantiations of interdisciplinarity in the study of tax policy. As in the parable about the blind men and the elephant, disciplinary priors may cause scholars to see only part of the whole—and perhaps to resist novel data from other fields that might unsettle their entrenched views. From this perspective, law schools offer both peril and promise as research nodes within the contemporary university system. The promise is that law schools collect the expertise necessary to see the entire elephant; the peril is that they’ll decide that it’s really a giraffe. One’s level of optimism may vary—and with it, any prescriptions for academic institutions in light of Christian’s paper.
Finally, Christians raises crucial questions about the scope of tax policy as a field of study. Throughout Christians’s paper, she folds government transfers and other spending into taxation. While inarguably correct as an intellectual matter, this move seems likely to bamboozle policymakers. For example, Christians implies that military spending could (or should) be analyzed under the same rubric as traditional tax provisions, since military might allows for the type of control necessary for state-building. Furthermore, spending on public goods, such as defense or policing, is “integral” to the tax system. (One also could analyze U.S. military spending as largely redistributive and substantially allocative in function.) I’m a bit skeptical, however, that tax policy offers an adequate theory of everything, and so would welcome a proposal that prevents tax policy from metastasizing into a comprehensive survey of the entire state.
In conclusion, Christians’s important and provocative paper provides various departure points for exploring—and challenging—the basic foundations of tax policy. Christians’s paper should be of interest to anyone interested in tax policy (and is lucid enough to serve as a primer for newcomers), as well as scholars in a variety of law and non-law fields.