Tax and the Philosopher's Stone

32 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2005 Last revised: 18 Apr 2018

See all articles by Kevin A. Kordana

Kevin A. Kordana

University of Virginia School of Law

David Blankfein-Tabachnick

Michigan State University College of Law


In the Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford 2002), Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel discuss the relationship between tax policy and contemporary political philosophy. Murphy and Nagel essentially argue for the priority of political philosophy over tax policy. For them, there is little room for tax policy per se; they argue that tax policy ought to serve the ends of a philosophical conception of justice. They maintain that questions of fairness are, in and of themselves, irrelevant to tax policy, which should be understood as a slave to philosophical conceptions of justice. While we embrace Murphy and Nagel's central claim that it makes little sense to engage arguments over tax policy without an antecedently held conception of distributive justice and that questions of tax policy must be consistent with that conception, we argue that some aspects of their argument are ultimately too strong. Traditional metrics of tax policy analysis such as the benefit principle and the equal sacrifice principle are neither completely irrelevant to tax policy, nor inconsistent with all versions of political liberalism. We distinguish between "pre-institutional" and "post-institutional" conceptions of liberalism, and between "maximizing" and "non-maximizing" conceptions of distributive justice. We argue that while Murphy and Nagel's argument is powerful in the context of maximizing, post-institutional conceptions, it is less persuasive in the context of pre-institutional versions of liberalism and, perhaps, in the context of non-maximizing versions of post-institutional liberalism. Finally, we conclude by arguing that the central claims of Murphy and Nagel's argument are, to some extent, in tension with what they take to be their view's practical applications.

Keywords: Tax, Taxation, Tax Policy, Thomas Nagel, Liam Murphy, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Horizontal Equity, Vertical Equity, Benefit Principle, Equal Sacrifice Principle, Tax Base, Taxation of Gifts, Kaplow and Shavell, Rawls and Tax, Flat Tax

JEL Classification: D63, E62, H23

Suggested Citation

Kordana, Kevin A. and Blankfein-Tabachnick, David, Tax and the Philosopher's Stone. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 89, p. 647, 2003, Available at SSRN:

Kevin A. Kordana

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
804-924-3680 (Phone)
804-924-7536 (Fax)

David Blankfein-Tabachnick (Contact Author)

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

648 N Shaw Ln
East Lansing, MI 48824
United States


Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics