TIM O’BRIEN, correspondent: There are some things the government must do, and the first reason for taxes is to pay for them. Beyond that there is wide debate over how taxes can be efficient and fair and what kind of society they should promote.
PROFESSOR GREG MANKIW (Professor of Economics, Harvard University): People on the left think that the tax code is not nearly redistributive enough, think that the rich are really getting away with murder. People on the right think that it’s not the job of government to be redistributing income and that the tax code we have is too progressive.
O’BRIEN: Greg Mankiw was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the second Bush administration.
MANKIW: It’s a difference of values, of what you think government should be. In coming to any sort of tax reform those different values are going to collide, and there’s no easy way to sort of reconcile these very different philosophical positions about what the scope of government should be.
Professor Michael Sandel teaching at Harvard: How should income and wealth and opportunities and the good things in life be distributed?
O’BRIEN: The collision of the competing views of the role of government is the grist for a very popular course at Harvard taught by Michael Sandel, a professor and political philosopher.
PROFESSOR MICHAEL SANDEL (Professor of Government, Harvard University): The main purpose of a tax system is to raise revenue for the common good, for the public good. That’s its purpose. But it has to do so in a way that is fair, that involves shared sacrifice, because really it’s a matter of sharing the burdens of a free society and of a good society. That’s, morally speaking, what taxes are about. So unless a tax system meets the test of fairness, none of its other advantages really matter.
O’BRIEN: For Peter Wehner, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, the issue is freedom.
Read it all here.