“From Contested Concept to Cornerstone of Administrative Practice”: Social Learning and the Early History of U.S. Tax Withholding

Mehrotra, Ajay K.

One of the principal aims of this article is to attend to the early U.S. history of income tax withholding and third-party information reporting. Building upon earlier studies, this article contends that examining the pre-1943 adoption of income tax withholding is critical not only to a deeper historical understanding of how information reporting and withholding were transformed from a contested concept to an administrative cornerstone, but also to our future expectations of administrative and bureaucratic reform.

More specifically, this article contends that significant administrative reform has occurred historically through a process of incremental institutional change and what political scientist Hugh Heclo calls “social learning.”[18] Rarely in American administrative history do we see a dramatic or radical alteration of bureaucratic processes or procedures. Instead, what the history of information reporting and withholding illustrates is that reformers and policymakers developed key administrative advancements gradually by puzzling over policy options based on past ideas and experiences as well as new information.[19]


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Columbia Journal of Tax Law

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November 21, 2016