Simple Rules and the Political Economy of Income Taxation: The Strengths of a Uniform Expense Rule
European Journal of Law and Economics
17 Pages Posted: 22 May 2020 Last revised: 4 Nov 2022
Date Written: April 24, 2020
The complexity of the U.S. income tax system emerged in part from the differentiated fiscal treatment of specific investments and various sorts of business expenditures that, as Richard Wagner says, creates “a tax code so large that no one can read it and which creates nearly a unique tax liability for each taxpayer.” While tax scholarship documents the costs of complexity, current scholarship lacks a normative legal theory that could inspire an alternative to this practice of targeted credits and deduction rules. This paper builds on Epstein’s general Simple Rules framework to develop a radical simplification of income tax: the operationalization of a uniform expense rule, i.e., the application of a single deduction scheme across all expenses and investments. With regard to the trade-off between targeted rules and this general approach, this paper investigates the nature of a uniform expense rule and reveals its strengths with respect to political economy. First, a stable and universal expense rule would narrow the scope of politicians’ ability to concentrate benefits on special-interest groups and would limit rent-seeking. The abolition of deviating rules for investments would restrict the scope of tax optimization, meaning that individual and corporate tax liabilities would be more determined by the ability to pay them. The same policy would save companies and government millions of dollars that they currently spend on tax compliance and administration of the tax system, respectively. Last, a deduction rule that applies across all businesses and industries would be less price distortive and thus would enhance the quality of the price signal.
Keywords: Tax Expenditures, Tax Complexity, Tax Efficiency, Tax Reform, Tax Law and Economics, Political Economy
JEL Classification: K00, K34
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation