In Defense of Tax Law

The Northwest 3L Columns, Lawyer Leave a Comment

As much as I am loathe to admit it, I started law school with the same sort of naivety that most 1Ls start with. I was going to change the world. Make a “real difference.” With a little luck, I’d be able to turn all my hard work and dedication into a position with the Cato Institute and wreak vengeance on all things not libertarian. (By all means, comment at length about why libertarians are idiots, every comment is a page view and every page view is income.) Then classes started.

The first few classes were great; Torts and Contracts made sense (well, close enough to something resembling sense). Property was fine if I just left the Rule Against Perpetuites alone and consulted state statutes for that bit. Even Civil Procedure seemed worthwhile since any system requires rules and most of the time the tradeoffs were understandable. Besides, theoretical arguments in the field notwithstanding, there is huge practical benefit in having instruction in how to steer a case through the courts without running aground. All in all, I was ready to jump into ConLaw and Admin and get into the meat of why I was in law school.

It was only a couple weeks into ConLaw when I realized that I’d gone wrong somewhere.

The subject, while intellectually stimulating, had, at best, very little practical value—and decisions were all over the map. Growing crops for your own consumption was “interstate commerce” in Wickard v. Filburn. Justices who had gone on tirades about why that decision was completely wrong then went on to rule that growing crops for personal consumption was “interstate commerce” in Gonzales v. Raich. There was no unifying theory here, the court’s reaction time was glacial, and the only way to figure out legitimate questions was to litigate and hope.

Well, perhaps AdminLaw would be better. It wasn’t. And the day we spent a half-hour discussing a theory on the administrative state that the professor admitted “no court has ever accepted, but it’s very intellectually interesting” was pretty much the day I tuned out.

These fields weren’t really worried about making individual people’s lives better, they were battlefields for theoreticians with very infrequent effects on most people’s lives. As much as I applauded reasoning and result of Brown and the result of Roe v. Wade (Roe’s reasoning is a hideous mess), if I wanted a reasonable chance of having a tangible effect on things I needed to look elsewhere.

And that’s when I finally found tax law.

Say what you will about the way the IRS is perceived, but they do react, and, compared to the Supreme Court, quite quickly. I’ve yet to have a tax professor who spent too much time worrying about theory either. Here, pragmatism rules the day. If an argument has been rejected by the courts, no one cares how interesting it is, they’re not going to waste time on dead ends.

At the end of the day, everything you need is right there in 26 U.S.C. (and the state codes) and it doesn’t take years of appeals to get to the supreme court before you find out if you’ve helped your client or struck out. Hell, the IRS will even let you ask them whether they’ll challenge something you’re planning without needing to involve courts at all. No more of this “well, there’s uncertainty over this but we can try it and see if we end up in court” bullshit. Just straightforward questions and straightforward answers.

If you’re interested in law because you honestly want to make things better for people, tax law will do that. The guy who can’t make ends meet because the real estate bubble shot his home value through the stratosphere? Tax law can help make sure he’s not evicted. The middle-class guy just making everything come together financially who has a great business idea or new invention? Tax law and corporate law will help make sure that he can set up his own business intelligently and help give him a real chance at being more than just an office drone.

Tax law is the one area that touches everyone and can benefit everyone. Call me boring, call me stodgy, call me someone who’s so stuck in the past that he still clings to the fact that it was the IRS who brought down Al Capone, hell, call me a nutcase who couldn’t hack it in the courtroom—I’ll smile through it all. But just remember that sooner or later you’re going to need a guy like me, and when that day comes, I’ll still be smiling when I mail you my bill.

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