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Kim Brooks, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Comparative Tax Scholarship, 24 Fla. Tax Rev. 1 (2020).

Justice Louis Brandeis famously described U.S. states as “laboratories” in which citizens can authorize their sub-national governments to “try novel social and economic experiments.” His logic surely also applies to nations as well, with countries around the world offering a wealth of real-world experiments from which we can all draw valuable insights.

Kim Brooks knows quite a lot about comparative legal scholarship (tax studies in particular), but she understands that most people have only passing familiarity with that vast body of literature. She also understands that most every scholarly enterprise could profit from a comparative perspective but that most scholars do not have the time or inclination to become full-on comparativists. What to do?

Brooks’s answer is to offer what she cheekily refers to as a hitchhiker’s guide, by which she means a practical immersion into just enough of the concepts of comparative scholarship to allow relative novices (like most of us) to enhance our analyses by looking beyond our own countries. She demonstrates, in short, that it is not necessary to become a Comparative Legal Scholar to engage usefully in comparative scholarship, and she shows how to do so carefully and with sufficient sophistication for any particular project.

She argues, moreover, that allowing scholars who do not view themselves as comparativists nonetheless to engage in the field strengthens the overall project, rather than weakening it.

The best way to understand comparative scholarship, as Brooks explains, is to understand the different purposes that it serves. She therefore sets out a taxonomy of those purposes (a total of eight), helpfully grouped into three categories. For example, the most basic group is “doctrinal” studies, which can have three purposes: better understanding one’s own country, better understanding another country, and drawing general conclusions about an area of law.

Brooks uses tax law as her framework throughout; but because she is surely correct that her analysis extends beyond tax into other areas of legal scholarship–and beyond law as well–I am paraphrasing her analysis by omitting specific reference to tax law. (This is why I put the word “tax” in parentheses in the title of this jot.)

Brooks offers five additional purposes of tax law, three under the category “normative” and two under “explanatory” scholarship, but the first category (“doctrinal”) alone shows how richly rewarding even a small amount of comparative scholarship can be. For example, a large amount of my own scholarly work explores the U.S. Social Security system. Although various American states do offer various types of retirement benefits, there simply is no way for a national pension system like Social Security to leave room for a “laboratory of the states” approach to policy. That is, because Social Security is by design (nearly) universal and constitutes a legal minimum below which no state’s government will be permitted to allow its citizens to fall, any innovation in the states will be limited to possibly supplementing the federal system.

Other countries, however, can and do run retirement systems with different financing mechanisms and eligibility rules. Comparative scholarship, then, allows us to ask questions about how retirement systems are–or could be–structured. Although I have never for even a moment considered myself a comparativist, I did have the opportunity a few years ago to spend time in Australia, devoting some of my efforts to studying their “superannuation” system (commonly just called super). Super is a particularly helpful comparator to the U.S. system, because Australia’s system is–at least as a matter of form–entirely individualized, in contrast to our collective pay-as-you-go system of intergenerational support.

A comparative study limited to those two countries alone, then, can provide avenues to achieve at least two of the three doctrinal purposes that Brooks lays out: better understanding the U.S. Social Security system, and better understanding Australia’s super system. Moreover, it allowed me (a la Brooks’s third purpose) to draw certain important conclusions about retirement law – among the more important of them being that Australia’s political system has had to respond to the risks of an individualized system by putting up safety nets so significant that they begin to mirror our universal system, and that the administrative costs of an individualized system dwarf the modest costs in the U.S.

Again, these insights are available even after dipping only a few toes into the comparative scholarship pool. That is, it was not necessary to become a comparative law expert to compare the legal frameworks of the two countries’ systems, and only a bit of very basic investigation into the stated legislative purposes offered by the countries’ lawmakers offered helpful insights, allowing an observer to achieve at least the first two purposes in Brooks’s taxonomy.

Moreover, Brooks notes that the decision about how many countries to include in a comparison is itself very specific to context and scholarly purpose. If, for example, I wanted to claim that the U.S. Social Security system is superior to all others, or even to claim that our system works relatively well, I would need to study additional countries, chosen on the basis of the details of their systems (financing mechanisms, eligibility, whether the systems are public or private or a hybrid, and so on) so that it would at least be plausible to make such broad (if tentative) assessments. On the other hand, studying only two countries still allowed me to draw the more limited conclusion that a nominally individualized system ends up functioning surprisingly similarly to a collective system–an observation that is striking because it is so counterintuitive.

As Brooks is very much aware, there is a certain amount of artificiality to her eight discrete purposes of comparative scholarship, and there is thus inevitable overlap when thinking about any particular comparative inquiry. In the case of retirement policy, for example, Brooks’s seventh purpose–“To Explain Why a Country’s Laws Are the Way They Are (and Why They Differ or Are the Same as Other Countries)”–inevitably overlaps with the third purpose–drawing general conclusions about an area of law. Why does Australia limit investment options? Why does the U.S. not offer opt-outs? Finding the answers to these questions is easier when comparing the two countries than when analyzing either one on its own.

Brooks is surely right, then, in arguing that having non-comparativists engage in comparativism–but only as much as is necessary, and with context in mind–enhances any legal or policy analysis. And because even amateur comparativism is nonetheless comparativism, having more people engaging in it can only help the overall enterprise. We can all, then, better evaluate the quality of our own and each other’s work, once we bear in mind how and why Brooks’s taxonomy disciplines the inquiry.

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Cite as: Neil H. Buchanan, Comparative (Tax) Scholarship is for Everyone, and Everyone Can Make It Better, JOTWELL (July 14, 2021) (reviewing Kim Brooks, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Comparative Tax Scholarship, 24 Fla. Tax Rev. 1 (2020)),