Friday, November 4, 2022
Neil Buchanan (Florida; Google Scholar) presents The Universality of the Murphy-Nagel Approach at Florida today as part of its Tax Policy Colloquium hosted by Charlene Luke:
Few academic books that have had as much immediate influence as The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Myth), which upon publication in 2002 became a staple of syllabi across tax academia and launched important debates among scholars around the world. This was all the more impressive because neither of the authors, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel (MN), is a tax scholar. Yet their insights have changed the narrative in tax scholarship and beyond.
This surprising success raises a number of questions. Why is the book so important? Should it have even more impact than it has had — that is, is it possible that the scholars and policy analysts who have found it so interesting nonetheless failed to appreciate the full import of MN’s approach and arguments? Is it misunderstood? Is it perfect?
That last question is the easiest to answer, of course, because MN never claim that the book is or should be the beginning and end of analysis of the philosophy of taxation, nor do even the book’s most ardent admirers claim as much.
To be clear up front, I am one of those ardent admirers. As I will explain presently, Myth’s unique importance derives more than anything else not from a breakthrough theory offered by its authors but from their explication of the foundational realities of any economic and tax system. In early chapters of the book, MN do not so much make an argument as what I will call here a “pre-argument.” Myth powerfully reminds us of the unavoidably contingent nature of any set of assumptions driving arguments in taxation. Confronting the assumptions that we all make requires us to understand that everything that we take for granted can be contested — and that, as the title of the book provocatively states, ownership itself is a myth.
I will devote most of this chapter to explaining the universality of MN’s approach — or, again, their pre-argument — both because it is important on its own merits and because people across the ideological/academic spectrum almost without exception skip past (or perhaps are unaware of the importance of) the core fact on which MN build their pre-argument: that there is no “state of nature” that we can use as an objective standard of comparison when assessing tax and other policies. Specifically, most policy analyses at least implicitly assume that there is a coherent and measurable concept called “pre-tax income” and that there is a set of laws and policies that can be called “neutral.” MN explain clearly and powerfully that those beliefs are simply wrong.”