“The evidence is clear, and especially around April 15. Americans hate everything about taxation—with a passion.” So writes Robin L. Einhorn, Professor in the History of the United States at the University of California, Berkeley. Although this truism may seem like an unusual way to begin an essay about law, virtue, and climate change, Americans’ distaste for taxation is in many ways a major obstacle to American climate change mitigation efforts. This is due to the fact that while many analysts contend that a carbon tax is the most effective and efficient climate change mitigation policy available to the U.S., one of the most significant obstacles to the legislation of a national carbon tax in the U.S. is American’s basic aversion to taxation. As Shi-Ling Hsu observes in his book The Case for a Carbon Tax, there is an “allergy to a sensible [climate] policy [because it] happens to have the word ‘tax’ in it” (8).
In view of Americans’ antipathy towards taxation, the Thomistic virtue jurisprudence proposed by Cathleen Kaveny in her book Law’s Virtues can dispose Americans to support a national carbon tax. Kaveny observes that many contemporary Americans often conceive of the legal system as a “police officer” which functions as a “negative” instrument to prevent “wrongful harms” from being perpetrated on innocent persons through threat of punishment (19-23). Although Aquinas affirms this kind of negative role for human law, Kaveny points out that Aquinas also recognizes a positive role for human law as “moral teacher” (28-34). Understood as such, civil law inevitably identifies communal ideals and inculcates virtues—understood as value-based habits—in a citizenry by facilitating repeated desirable actions (28-34).
Given this positive function of human law, Kaveny identifies two virtues that are commensurate with American values and which U.S. lawmakers should seek to foster. The first is autonomy, understood by legal philosopher Joseph Raz as what Kaveny describes to be “the capacity to be the ‘part-author’ of one’s own life” to the end of human flourishing (53-4). The second is solidarity, described by Pope John Paul II as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, # 38). In order for U.S. law to foster autonomy and solidarity, Kaveny recommends four policy criteria: the situating of acts within a broad understanding of human flourishing; attention to particular acts; desire that prescribed actions become habituated; and awareness that autonomy and solidarity are constitutive of human flourishing (34).
Guided by this framework, there are several ways in which a national carbon tax can inculcate autonomy and solidarity. First, a national carbon tax should initially focus exclusively on reducing domestic CO2 emissions in the U.S (Cf. Hsu, 46-52, 90-100). In addition to this, legislators should strive and plan for a declining amount of carbon tax revenue out of the belief that corporations and citizens will become increasingly accustomed to making low-carbon choices (Cf. “The Most Sensible Tax of All”). Moreover, lawmakers should ensure that carbon tax revenue be refunded to citizens “pro-rata” in order to protect those in poverty from disproportionately suffering adverse economic impacts from what is necessarily a regressive tax (Cf. Carbon Tax Center). Finally, U.S. lawmakers should include in a national carbon tax “Carbon Border Adjustments” that protect U.S. producers by placing import tariffs on goods according to their associated emissions (Cf. Center for Climate and Electricity Policy).
Should a carbon tax be legislated according to the criteria derived from Kaveny’s virtue jurisprudence, this policy would enable the inculcation of autonomy and solidarity in the American public in several ways. For example, autonomy would be inculcated by affording citizens the opportunities to make self-directed lifestyle and consumption choices in the free market to the end of human flourishing. Moreover, solidarity would be fostered through increased awareness of how climate change harms society and efforts to protect the poor and U.S. producers under climate change mitigation policy.
In order for the pedagogical capacity of a national carbon tax to dispose Americans to support this policy, however, lawmakers and opinion leaders must revise the narrative with which they support this policy. Carbon tax opponents have generally attacked this policy by framing it as what Kaveny would call a “negative police officer.” To this, carbon tax supporters often respond that carbon taxation is the most environmentally effective and economically efficient climate change mitigation policy. Although this is true, the prioritization of such extrinsic values is negatively correlated with environmentally sustainable opinions and habits.
If carbon tax proponents are to successfully dispose Americans to this climate change mitigation policy, they must clearly and persuasively communicate the pedagogical function of this policy rooted autonomy and solidarity. In order to achieve this, however, several points must be effectively communicated: the ways that climate change viciously harms the poor; the need for carbon tax revenue to be refunded in a way that prioritizes the poor; and commitment to protect American producers under carbon taxation. To the extent that these steps are taken, it is increasingly likely that Americans will recognize the positive pedagogical function of a carbon tax and be disposed to support this policy. As such, Kaveny’s Thomistic virtue jurisprudence represents a powerful yet unrealized tool in the effort to enact a national carbon tax in the U.S.
Daniel R. DiLeo is a Margaret O’Brien Flatley Fellow and Ph.D. student in theological ethics at Boston College.