University of Chicago Law Review

The Legal Salience of Taxation

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Before an injury becomes a legal dispute, the injury must be named, a party must be blamed, and a right against that injury must be claimed. What motivates people to do these things and use legal institutions to seek redress? I provide a partial answer to this question, using a unique dataset to identify the effect that the salience of a tax—that is, its psychological prominence—has on whether a taxpayer will use legal means to lighten the tax's burden. I term this effect its legal salience." I find that reducing property tax salience makes homeowners less likely to appeal their property-value assessments, making it more likely that homeowners will remain overassessed and overtaxed. These overtaxed homeowners never perceive—are never able to "name"—their injury and consequently never obtain the relief to which they might be entitled. Moreover, I show that the selective use of appeals caused by legal salience shifts the tax burden to racial minorities, immigrants, and working families with children. Scholars and lawmakers operate as if only substantive law drives the distribution of a tax burden. But I show that legal salience is one of a number of factors that also affects the tax distribution by motivating only certain individuals to seek tax relief, and I argue that tax laws should be evaluated after taking into account the effects of legal salience.

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