Although their meaning and contours have long been controversial, the general criteria for evaluating changes in tax law enjoy both stability and consensus. At least since Adam Smith, there has been virtually universal agreement that the nation's tax law should be fair, economically efficient, and simple to comply with and to administer. Tax law changes should be designed to make the law more equitable, easier to comply with, more conducive to economic growth, and less likely to interfere with private economic decisionmaking.
Precisely what these criteria imply for policymaking is controversial, however. Fairness is often said to require that people with equal ability to pay taxes pay equal amounts of tax, and those with greater ability to pay, pay more. Disputes have long raged over the traits relevant to evaluate whether people's circumstances are appropriately similar to warrant similar tax treatment and over the standards for evaluating peoples' relative abilities to pay taxes. Nonetheless, a "fair" distribution of the tax burden among people at different levels of income has long been regarded as a necessary attribute of a just tax system, and its assessment is essential to evaluate how a nation's tax law – or proposed changes in it – measure up. Likewise, answers to questions regarding the economic effects of proposed or enacted tax legislation are routinely disputed. Even the need to finance budget expenditures with revenues – a seemingly straightforward imperative – proves controversial in its execution. The pursuit of simplicity is frequently a bystander. Conflict among these concerns is inevitable – conflict that demands, and is reflected in, inevitable political compromise. Tradeoffs among these goals are the stuff from which tax legislation is made.
Michael J. Graetz,
Paint-by-Numbers Tax Lawmaking,
Colum. L. Rev.
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