Vic Fleischer had a really interesting post on religion and tax policy over at a
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.
There is a lot of stuff going on in these sentences. First, Vic’s argument seems a bit confused about the nature of normative reasoning. In good economic fashion, he seems to be suggesting that theories of distributive justice are a kind of preference. (E.g. “I have no problem with those who derive their preferences from religious faith.”) This, it seems to me, is fundamentally mistaken. Kaplow and Shavell aggressively pursued this line of thinking in Fairness versus Welfare, and I think that when they stray from positive economic analysis into the realm of normative argument their results are a rather dismal failure. (In my opinion, Jules Coleman offers the most trenchant criticisms in his review The Grounds of Welfare, 112 Yale. L. J. 1511 (2003)). Their failure, however, does not come because normative argument is useless, but rather because they made bad normative arguments. In a nutshell, the problem with their approach is that distributive justice is not simply an input into a personal utility function. It is also a claim about the nature of moral reality, and as such it has a truth value independent of whether or not any particular person prefers it or not.