Saturday, 27 April 2019

Preface for a book I might never write

Preface for a book I might never write: Arguing for the CLIPH-rate tax

Lately I’ve been teaching or planning courses about distributive justice and I’ve mapped out a book I’d love to write if I had the time. It's probably about third on my list of projects though I sometimes mentally change the order of priority.

In fact, I wouldn't be starting from scratch. As well as having taught some of the theories, I could use a couple of pieces I’ve published, and I have written some blogs on the topic too. However, I thought it might be nice to note down the idea here, just as no doubt countless authors have written a preface but never completed the actual book.

The basic idea is to write a three-part (or even volume!) work presenting the argument(s) for my CLIPH-rate tax system from three different theories of justice; Egalitarianism, Consequentialism and desert theory.


The egalitarian argument is the easiest one to reproduce as I’ve already written a couple of pieces about this, in an edited collection and in my article “Arguing for hourly averaging.” Resource egalitarianism is the theory of distributive justice I find most compelling, and so this has been my primary concern up until now.

However, not everyone is convinced by egalitarianism and I think that it is possible to make strong arguments for the CLIPH-rate tax from two other theories.

Consequentialism and prioritarianism

Consequentialists about distributive justice believe that the economy should be designed to bring about the best total consequences. The good consequences could be subjective welfare, preference satisfaction, freedoms or some mixture of goods. Consequentialism is a totalising theory; bring about the most good. It therefore doesn’t matter how the goods and bads of society are distributed. Someone might be very badly off both absolutely and relatively under a consequentialist system and they would have no grounds for complaint (except by rejecting consequentialism). For many people, this is enough to reject consequentialism; everyone is just a means to bring about the best total consequences.

In fact, consequentialism does not have to ignore distributive matters entirely. Prioritarianism is a consequentialist theory which gives priority to those who are worse-off when undertaking the consequentialist calculation. The weighting towards the worse-off could vary; with greater emphasis on maximising the total amount of good or with greater priority given to those who have less. Prioritarianism seems to make consequentialism a lot more acceptable, though it doesn’t fully resolve all concerns about it.

How can you argue for the CLIPH-rate tax along consequentialist or prioritarian lines? I’ve made some points in previous blogs and in my book about the ways that an economy with the CLIPH-rate tax at its heart would combine incentives to work, save and invest with a great deal of redistribution to assist those on low incomes. Consequentialists, and particularly prioritarians, would want to ensure that there isn’t an impoverished class of workers at “the bottom” of society. Raising the standard of those who are badly off should bring about better total (let alone prioritised) consequences if we accept that nearly everyone gets declining marginal utility from resources. A poor person will get more utility (or whatever other good you specify) from a £10 gift than a rich person would. A successful economy should therefore focuses on making the worse off as well as possible, where this can be done without damaging overall economic productivity too much.

I would like to do more to show that the CLIPH-rate tax can both help to enlarge the pie while ensuring that everyone gets a decent slice. Hour credits are a key part of the tax calculation, and the only thing that someone can do (by choice) to get more hour credits is to undertake more work. The incentive to work is therefore built into the system. Meanwhile the tax calculation should generate as much taxation from unearned income as possible, representing the ideal form of taxation.

This is because the CLIPH-rate tax should do a good job of taxing not just unearned income but, relatedly, all forms of economic rent. Economic rents accrue to someone when they get more than they need in order to make the economic transaction in question. So if a landlord is considering renting a room and would accept £100 for it, but can get £200 due to high demand, then fully half of the rental income they get is economic rent. If this landlord has a tax rate of 50% they would still rent out their room, but instead of their getting the economic rent, it would go to the government. This revenue can be used to assist the less fortunate members of society, increasing their happiness.
That is a summary of the theory anyway, and I’d like to have more to back up my claims. It would be great to work with economists to help make the case.

Desert theories

I also think that a very strong case can be made for the CLIPH-rate tax from the perspective of desert theory. In a CLIPH-rate tax economy people get more income if they either get more hour credits (more hours worked) or have a higher income. Income made from working will therefore generate much more of a reward than unearned income, something which chimes well with desert theory.
Desert theories aren’t particularly popular with political philosophers, though they seem to be more popular with the general public, who often talk about particular people getting more or less than they deserve. A dodgy banker, crook or tabloid “benefit/welfare queen” could be said to have much more than they deserve. On the other hand, people might claim that nurses, kindly and charitable soul, or other hard-working person get less than they should.

Philosophers have delineated a few different bases for these desert claims. One is that some are more productive than others and should be rewarded accordingly. This is the productive contribution desert base associated with David Miller, Jonathan Riley and Gregory Mankiw.

A second desert base holds that people who do more burdensome jobs should get more than others. This is the compensation for burdensomeness desert base associated with Julian Lamont.  According to this theory, the person who does dangerous or unpleasant work deserves more than others who have less burdensome jobs. Someone working very hard in the cold on a North-sea oil rig with a high risk of death deserves much more than someone who works in a comfortable office.

The third desert base has features from the two above and attempts to get around the problems they have. This is that people who put in more effort should get more than others. This view is associated with George Sher, Wojciech Sadurski and Heather Milne. There are issues with all three desert bases though they all have some intuitive appeal. One is the extent they link to what people earn on the labour market.

I believe there is strong case to be made that the CLIPH-rate tax does a very good job of tracking these desert bases. Under a CLIPH-rate tax system people will get more if they get more hour credits (work longer hours) or if they have a higher income, and particularly if they do both these by working longer hours for higher pay. This seems to track all the desert bases above, since market pay rates reward productivity, burdensomeness and effort, and the hourly element also represents a productive contribution, the burden of giving up one’s time and an effort. Meanwhile, people who receive mostly unearned income from gifts or economic rents will be taxed very highly.

Other theories

I don’t think that there is much traction in arguing for the CLIPH-rate tax from libertarianism, though perhaps it might work from a few of the less common versions of left-libertarianism. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch and I don’t find libertarianism compelling anyway so I can live without trying to make that argument.

Sufficientarianism is another theory that is plausible. While I’m sure it’s possible to make an argument from sufficientarianism I’m not sure whether it is worth attempting it. After all, there are lots of forms of sufficientarianism and many people advocate a pluralist theory anyway (sufficientarianism + some other theory). Plus I don’t see why the CLIPH-rate tax particularly does any better at getting people above thresholds except perhaps for the consequentialist/prioritarian reasons set out above. Let me know if you disagree and think I should write about this.

Prospects and next steps

What are the prospects for ever writing this book? We’ll see. I might be able to do it fairly quickly if I could devote a chunk of time to it, but other things always seem more pressing. Perhaps I can start with a few journal articles and see if anything develops from there. Maybe this is as far as it will get? If so, its nice to have a record at least.

And if anyone has any suggestions or wants to collaborate do drop me an email.


Physiocrat said...

I was sent via an abstract of your work on averaging of taxation.

I cannot for the life of me follow the logic of the argument. I have no problem at all with following.

"In order to reach this conclusion it first presents an argu-ment that tax policies should be guided by the requirements of distributive justice. The chapter takes an ecumenical position on distributive justice, merely showing that most prominent approaches to justice would support a taxation system with two broad features. The first is that the system would be progressive in nature and thereby provide transfers from the economically fortunate to the less fortunate. The second feature is that the system would retain economic incentives and thereby encourage an effective and efficient economy"

But what is the connection between that and the conclusions you draw and the policy proposals you put forward? There seems to be a leap in the argument which is not explained.

dougbamford said...

Thanks for reading, Henry. Did you read the whole paper? I would certainly like a lot more economic evidence to back up my intuitive argument about the CLIPH-rate tax. My point is that it would be unique in being able to tax at HIGHLY progressive rates while still providing a strong incentive to work. Would love to work with some economists to help strenthen the case in the future if time and resources allow.

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