Richard Musgrave in Colombia: The Art of Tax Reform in a Developing Country


Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay


Publication Number: 2022-06 

Publication Date: Revised October 2022

Richard A. Musgrave (1910-2007) is remembered today as the American economist who established modern foundations for public finance theory in the middle of the twentieth century. His work as a tax expert in developing countries has received little historical scrutiny. Musgrave was the chief economist of the 1949 World Bank mission to Colombia chaired by Lauchlin Currie. Twenty years later, he himself chaired an import fiscal reform mission in Colombia, the report of which served as a roadmap for the 1974 Colombian tax reform. Drawing from archival material and published sources, this paper reconstructs the intellectual baggage that Musgrave brought on his travels to Colombia. It situates his policy recommendations in the context of the Cold War developmentalist age and the rise of American expertise in Latin America. Musgrave’s worldview was consistent over the period. The paper shows how Musgrave employed normative principles of tax equity and positive knowledge about the economy to make the case for progressive reforms to the tax structure. In the long run, the legacy of the Musgrave mission in Colombia is less visible, but that was to be expected, as the conclusion of the paper argues.