A Review of The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel

[1] The analysis of most public policies is a two stage affair. First we ask: Should we adopt this policy (unemployment insurance, minimum wage legislation, regulations on abortion, etc)? The second, if the answer to the first question is yes, is: How should the policy be structured? Taxes are different. All governments have always had to levy taxes. Of necessity, we bypass the question of if we should levy taxes and pass straight to the matter of policy design.

[2] In part because taxes must be levied, and decisions cannot merely be postponed until the next session of the legislature or other responsible governmental body, tax policy is always contentious. Considering our several millennia of experience, one would think we would know how to erect an effective tax system to which at least the vast majority of people would subscribe. However, that is hardly the case, and tax policy remains, as it always has been, the terrain where political battles and conceptions of justice inevitably meet.

[3] In a democracy, public beliefs set the context for policy debates. We know from numerous studies that public opinion seldom exercises a direct effect on public policy; the channels of influence are too uncertain and too clogged for that. Nonetheless, views held by the citizenry both set boundaries to the public debate and provide touchstones for those aspiring to public office. To a degree, political elites reflect widely held beliefs; but at the same time they mold them as well. Public attitudes do change over time, and they change largely because of the continual debate over ideas in thoughtful books, the journals of opinion, and other public forums. In short, the ideas ordinary people carry around in their heads are enormously important.

[4] One of the ideas that most of us tend to take more or less for granted is that taxes take something from us that is ours. When people fill out their 1040s, many look at the gross income and think, “I made that much?” Then, when they calculate their tax liability, they can often be heard to mutter, “I am giving that much of my hard-earned money to Uncle Sam?” Politicians repeatedly reinforce this notion when they talk about government spending “the taxpayers’ money,” or when they argue that a tax cut is just “giving the people back some of their own money.”

[5] Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, both distinguished professors of philosophy, challenge that assumption. Their thesis is that taxes must be seen as a part of the entire system of property relations, not something that happens after property accrues in private hands. What we “have” is not “ours” in any meaningful or, more importantly, justifiable sense. Instead, the distribution of property and income is directly related to a host of government policies. The proper way to approach the analysis of tax policy, therefore, is to view it in the context of the general aims of government, underlain as those are by basic philosophical arguments about the type of society in which we want to live. The justice of a nation’s tax policy, consequently, cannot be considered apart from the justice of the whole corpus of its legal rules, government expenditures, and prevailing regulatory policies.

[6] In Murphy and Nagel’s view, we are captives of a muted form of libertarianism, or what they call “everyday libertarianism.” Extreme, or pure, libertarianism sees a person’s property as a bundle of natural rights, as the proper desserts of the marketplace, or sometimes as both. Organized society flows from the fact that certain “public” or “collective” goods-the basic examples being national defense and law enforcement-make everyone better off, but that no one will pay for them on his or her own. Therefore, we need a coercive mechanism to keep people from becoming what are called “free riders.” These basic functions of the state are patently legitimate, in that everyone benefits and benefits equally; therefore, they should be financed by taxation. If you take this approach, then the traditional criteria for analyzing the justice of the tax system-the benefit principle and the ability to pay principle-are quite appropriate.

[7] However, almost no one today really advocates such an extreme form of libertarianism. First, there is a wide consensus that many government services, even though they may involve payments to individuals or the provision of services only to some, have collective goods features. For example, support for public education provides a better trained workforce, increasing overall prosperity. Government-sponsored scientific research provides an array of noticeable benefits. Public health policies inhibit the spread of disease. Even alleviating poverty has a public goods aspect if it succeeds, for instance, in lowering crime. Second, hardly anyone, or at least so Murphy and Nagel say, believes that the public bears absolutely no responsibility for the destitute, a position required by extreme libertarianism. Even if you favor only providing a minimal level of food, shelter, and clothing, you have abandoned pure libertarianism. Any policies that increase general welfare or soften economic inequality that include public expenditure-which is most of them-will then require taxes. At this point, we cannot fall back on benefit and ability to pay, as we must now consider the entire policy regime. This will lead us, in turn, straight to basic questions of political philosophy.

[8] But the most fundamental flaw in muted libertarianism is failing to see that the pretax distribution of property is as much the result of government policy as it is of the market. In fact, even the market is beholden to government policy. Private property is itself merely a social construct, and its protection by the legal system and courts is the result of human definitions and choices. Money, to take another basic example, has no value without the backing of a stable government. Then, there is the whole panoply of public services and infrastructure essential to a market economy, such as transportation and communications facilities and so forth. In short, without government, there can be no “market.” Then, on top of this, other government policies allocate resources in various ways. To talk of “market outcomes” is an illusion. What I “own” is “mine” only because of a whole set of public policies.

[9] This central point is ably argued throughout the book. Murphy and Nagel also provide a careful analysis of various aspects of contemporary federal tax policy, such as proposals for a consumption tax, the justifiability of taxes on inheritances, the “marriage penalty,” and so on, based on their framework. Overall, these sections, consuming much of the book, are lively and well done. In each case, they show how the issue either relates back to their central theme, or demonstrate why it is a purely instrumental matter.

[10] Near the end, though, they wade onto more problematical turf. If one holds that some social provision for those at or near the bottom of the economic ladder is mandated, as will invariably follow from their approach, the question arises as to how best to make those provisions. Citing practical political constraints, they opt for some form of negative income tax, a policy that would utilize the tax system to make payments to those who fall below a certain threshold, coupled with a social safety net.

[11] There are two problems here. The first is that cash transfers are only one among many alternatives for alleviating the plight of the poor and softening economic inequality. At the moment, many, if not most, analysts believe that they are among the less desirable. They can easily lead a host of social and personal ills. To give this policy pride of place is to overlook the bulk of contemporary policy analysis, which points decidedly to the importance of work. In a way, it seems that the authors are doing what they criticize others for: analyzing a public policy apart from its overall effects.

[12] Secondly, I felt that the political analysis in the concluding chapter came up a little short. The authors acknowledge that restructuring the tax system along the lines they prefer will entail political appeals that combine self-interest with talk of justice. They rightly point out that even though many people approach politics with their self interest chiefly in mind “United States politics is also rife with appeals to what is right, and they are not necessarily all hypocritical rationalizations, even if many of them are (p. 178).” Where this leads is away from individualist conceptions of democracy to civic republicanism. It is puzzling, and a little disappointing, that they do fail to connect this discussion at all to civic republicanism, a position enjoying a vibrant rebirth in political theory at the moment, since it fits so well with their point.

[13] Nevertheless, this is a wise and needed book. Too often, public figures go about parroting a shorthand version of everyday libertarianism to justify their tax policy proposals. If the public is eventually convinced that Murphy and Nagel’s way of thinking about taxes is the appropriate one, our tax policy debates will be both more informed and more humane.