Taxes and card games


in Politics

Tristan and I had an interesting discussion earlier about tax law. I present the following possibility: tax law is like a complex card game being played by taxpayers and the government. There are thousands of rules, and everyone is playing as best they can, given their level of knowledge and ability. As such, anything that does not contradict the rules of the game (whether clever uses of trusts, putting property in a family member’s name, etc) is not ‘cheating’ in a moral sense. This derives from a shared understanding of the nature of the game: specifically, a common view of tax law as a purely black letter, rule-based phenomenon.

In this view, if people in Queensland realize they can get tax breaks by registering their mortgages in the names of infant children, it is akin to developing a clever new defence in chess. Lawmakers and tax collectors, also players in the game, then get to respond.

The obvious critique is to say that there is a spirit or intention behind the law, which there may well be. That said, if lawmakers understand the tax game in the same way as taxpayers, their intention must be interpreted through that viewpoint.

What do others think?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing October 27, 2006 at 11:05 pm

The intention of the law is not coreferential with the intent of the law maker. The law maker might have some intent certainly, but the intent of the law is always beyond the control of its writer, just as the spirit or intention of a text is never reducible to “what the author meant by it”.

I would propose that the spirit of the law exists in the law’s relation to the weltgeist, the driving spirit of history. Tax law in a democracy has the intent of actualizing the spirit of the democratic equality substantivly. In terms of content, this plays out in the funding of the state by individuals with regard to their ability to fund it – thus sales taxes and property taxes – those who can afford to spend more and who earn more pay the greater share. Inasmuch as the taxing system aims to be progressive (charge the rich propotionally more than the poor) it recieves its determination in the French revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity. This is not to invoke the entire history of the French revolution, but simply to mention it as the earliest violent uprising which asserts the basic democratic stance (it is not by accident that Hegel called Napoleon the “Weltgeist” – world spirit).

The intention behind the law is something like the Law itself – the moral law, the law full stop. The “Law” understood in this sense is not a set of rules or propositions, although kant did believe the moral law to be a set of non contradictory maxims. Obvious contradictions in any construction of these maxims and the neccesity for individual judgement, such as in the case of “does one lie to the man with the axe chasing after the little girl as to the direction you saw her run”, are simply proofs of the impossibility of codifying the “Law” into a set of rules.

The “Law” is, in essence, perspectival: it is appears as an object of knowledge only from the perspective of a knower, and is thus always one-sided. The Other’s perspective is also an attempt to actualize the universal, but nevertheless it negates one’s own vision and thus appears as evil. The recognition of one’s own and the other’s one sidedness in forgiveness is the epistemic access to the truth of the relation. The unity of the law exists in this mutual relation of this perspectival difference, something like a trans-perspectival unity which is only a unity in itself, because for-itself is always mobilized in a one-sided fashion.

The law makers task is to codify the truth of this relation in a set of rules that are in essence not propositions at all but regulations, interpretable by a judge and jury, in order to give space to the recognition of one sidedness in the judiciary process. In essence, the difference between the law book and the law courts is the difference between Kant and Hegel – rules versus unity in the tension of difference. Before the courts, which is to say in the action of individuals and the enforcement of laws by the police, the laws beget a version of this difference by acting out a game, which can be exemplified by tax evasion, or even drug law enforcement. However, since this game is played out without recognition of the face of the other (through tax forms, by turning one’s back and running), the unity is merely theoretical, never becomes conscious of itself. In organized crime, however, because the judgement and process occur on the same side as the criminal, the unity can be instantiated to an even greater degree than in criminal courts, since the judges themselves know what it is to be evil.

Sarah October 29, 2006 at 9:56 pm

I agree with Tristan that there are ethical issues involved, but I would relate it to the political & ethical beliefs of the individual. If you believe in government provision of a range of expensive services (eg. education, health, defence, basic infrastructure) then it strikes me as contradictory to shirk your tax obligations.
Of course, this depends on your beliefs and on how the system is structured – I sympathise with impoverished people who might not wish to pay taxes under a regressive tax system that they find ethically and politically objectionable (although they probably have no choice since those will usually be sales taxes). I tolerate consistent conservatives who avoid paying taxes but oppose government provision of services & make little use of public health, education etc. But I have contempt for people who shirk taxes although they use public services and believe both in the need for government provision and in the need for people like themselves to pay tax. The nature of most tax systems also ensures that the wealthy are in a better position to evade taxes, which strikes me as both inequitable and unjust.

Milan October 29, 2006 at 10:50 pm


I am not talking about actually breaking the rules. Rather, exploiting them in unanticipated but legal ways (the kind of thing you allude to in your last sentence).

It does seem a bit odd to place the burden of interpreting what laws ‘mean’ in some way beyond what they say upon individuals.

Milan April 10, 2007 at 10:47 am

John Maynard Keynes

“The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that carries any reward.”

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