Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Height Tax Properly Understood

Greg's height tax is receiving some renewed attention. When originally proposed I objected to the tax on the grounds that if a part of the redistribution schedule were based solely on height it could have the unintended consquences of transferring money from a poor tall person to a wealthy shorter person.

Greg responded by email that there is no reason to tax the poor tall or give payments to the wealthy short. The tax could be non-linear.

Now, such a tax is still somewhat disturbing to my sentiment Yet, I've come to believe that this is based on the inability of my moral compass to digest non-linearity. That is, when thinking about the tax it is difficult for me to intuit the effects of a redistribution principle that depends simultaneously on two values potentially moving in opposite directions.

So how about this. Suppose using God's Current Population Survey (by that I mean one that is all knowing and completely infallible) we are able to determine the individuals who achieved success because they were tall and those that were denied it because they were short. We can also effortlessly transfer a portion of income from the lucky tall to the unlucky short. Would it increase or decrease equality to do so?

In other words, let's forget about the fact that Greg's paper depends on correlations, non-linear tax systems and economic approximations. Let's pretend that we know for a fact that some people have gained benefits solely because of their height and others have incurred costs. Would it then still be unjust to redistribute.

My gut says no, and this makes me believe that sentimental problem with the tax is not due to the outcome but the opacity of the method. The tax doesn't strike as moral because it's so darn morally confusing.

However, as economists we shouldn't let that stop us. The minimum wage doesn't strike most people as being unjust to the poor but careful analysis reveals that it often is. Likewise, the height tax doesn't strike us as a just way redistribute, but if we are willing to imagine a simpler redistribution system which accomplishes the same goal we see that such a system can improve justice.

12 comments:

Robin Hanson said...

The whole point of having formal theory is so that we don't have to rely on our intuitions for each particular case. If we buy the framework, we can then buy the particular conclusions. Of course particularly troublesome cases might make us want to change our framework, but I don't see how this case is so troublesome.

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