IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform”

By: Leandra Lederman

Left to right: Jake Brooks, Leandra Lederman, Bill Popkin, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

On February 1, the Indiana University Maurer School of Law welcomed Prof. Jake Brooks from Georgetown Law School as the second speaker of the year in our Tax Policy Colloquium. Jake presented an early draft of a paper titled “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform,” which led to a lively and interesting discussion about what incrementalism is, what constitutes fundamental reform, how politics may affect the making of tax policy, and whether and how tax law differs from other fields of law.

The paper, which is not yet publicly available, argues that “fundamental tax reform,” while sometimes necessary, should not generally be the goal of tax policy, and that instead, policymakers should take an incremental approach to changing tax laws. “Incrementalism” has a long history in political science, and was first described by Charles Lindblom in an influential 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through.” In general, Lindblom’s approach in that article was to reject the urge to use a formal method that involves clarifying the principal goals up front, identifying the means to achieve them, and then analyzing every relevant factor in the decision. Lindblom instead advocated the use of a more casual method that he termed “successive limited comparisons,” which ignored important possible outcomes or alternatives and did not involve distinguishing means and ends. (Page 81 of Lindblom.) Lindblom argued that this “muddling through” approach was not only what was actually practiced by administrators, but also a method for which they need not apologize because administrators are less likely to make serious and lasting mistakes if they proceed through small, incremental changes (pp.86-87). As Jake acknowledges, Lindblom wrote at a time with much more limited ability to model and process large quantities of empirical data. He notes that incrementalism has continued to be an important theory in the literature. Despite technological advances, we cannot see the future, and there remain limits to what empirical data can help us predict.

Jake’s argument is driven in part by arguments in favor of tearing the Internal Revenue Code out by its roots and starting over. I agree with Jake that such an approach seems extremely risky. Policy driven by rhetoric and “horror stories” risks being ill-conceived, hasty, driven by political rent-seeking, and even destructive, as I have written about in the context of IRS reform. But does that necessarily mean that legislative tax changes should take a Lindblom-style incremental approach? Continue reading “IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Brooks, “The Case for Incrementalism in Tax Reform””