Bypass: Informal exceptions to property taxes in M'Bour and Kisumu

Authors: James Mizes*, Department of City & Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley, Liza Rose Cirolia, African Center for Cities, University of Cape Town
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Economic Geography, Africa
Keywords: informality, regulation, taxes, municipal state formation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Capitol Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Tax collection is a central practice through which scholars have examined the legitimacy and authority of the modern state. Janet Roitman argues it is precisely the organized public refusal to pay a tax that brings to light the contemporary problem of the fiscal authority of African states. A chorus of scholars explore public challenges to the state’s legitimacy and authority to tax. In this paper, we take a different approach. We examine how tax collectors make informal exceptions to tax law and the justifications they use to explain why they make such exceptions. Our intervention derives from the simple observation that, at times, tax administrators do not collect the property taxes that they are legally obliged and entitled to collect. There is widespread agreement among scholars that such discretion is a core facet of bureaucratic practice and that bureaucrats often depart from formal procedure. In this article, we outline two practices of—and justifications for—informal exceptions. We argue that these practices reconfigure the locus and form of state fiscal authority, often with surprisingly progressive effects. Bureaucracies are complex normative universes in which administrative law is only one arbiter of bureaucratic practice among many. And informal exceptions are a distinctive mode of regulation that shifts the locus and form of decision-making authority. Although scholars have characterized such informal exceptions as a technique of state domination and exclusion, in our conclusion we turn to a discussion of the politically progressive effects of informal exception in one of its practical forms: bypass.

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