Corporate Tax: A time for Jubilee?
I’ve already written a fairly long political post advocating a movement for a reconnection of the World’s richest with those closer to the bottom of society through correct payment of taxes. This, if you’ll permit me, is a theological post. It feels wrong to divide the politics from the theology, but I’ll admit it took me a while to remember what now seems so thoroughly obvious: Jubilee – perhaps the single most radical command in the Torah, the earliest books of the Christian bible.
In the earliest days of the nation of Israel, the Jubilee law stated that land should return to its original owner after every 50 years, and that slaves should be freed. This event, once-in-a-lifetime for the vast majority, was designed to restore dignity of land ownership to those who had been entrusted with it at the founding of Israel many years earlier. It prevented businessmen from using debts to extract and accumulate land from families, forcing the former owners into permanent servitude. It was a recognition that “Equality of Opportunity” for each generation was contingent on “Equality of Outcome” from the last.
It was a radical idea, unlike any other. It doesn’t remove individual autonomy and innovation (or rather, family autonomy, women having no rights to the land), but it prevented a permanent peasantry emerging. Needless to say, it didn’t last.
Britain has never had such a legal process, and it shows: we are one of the most iniquitous countries by land distribution in the world, alongside Brazil where a peasant movement to reclaim abandoned land has had significant effects. But land is not what we in Britain need – after all, we have barely enough to sustain ourselves without imports as it is.
But we have had systems that ensure those who make money from others also contribute to the wellbeing of society as a whole. At its peak, the taxation system in the UK stretched to 70% taxation of the highest tier of earnings and 93% taxation of the highest tier of unearned earnings. The process, given that land was no longer seen as the issue, ensured that the wealthiest both benefited from, and paid for the effects of, their investments. It was like a long continuous jubilee process rather than a 50th-year upheaval.
Our tax system, in placing a higher rate of tax at around £50,000 in annual earnings, even nods towards a very profound truth – that at around that point, the improvement in happiness and wellbeing ceases, and people gain next to nothing apart from status and perhaps even begin to face depression through the isolation such wealth begins to bring.
When Jesus is asked to comment on the fairness of taxation, by being asked whether to pay tax to the imperial government of Rome, he pointed to something deeper – that even if the money legally belonged to Caesar, in the hard and fast cosmic reality, everything belongs to God. The emphasis on possession that our society places flies directly in the face of this – and we are seeing its effects now. The breakdown in taxation can be broadly painted as the real sign of a “Broken Britain” – broken because self-interest has taken over, and self-interest better presented by the catastrophic failure of the richest to respect the poorest and afford them dignity than the petty nuisance of youth.
The church needs to call for Jubilee in our society. At a time when many are simply asset-stripping Britain to fill their off-shore bank accounts before spitting us out the same way as Ireland and Greece, we have a limited opportunity to intervene and call the richest in society to account for their intransigence. Part of that process must be in calling people to participate in a progressive system of community-empowering redistribution, one that is currently thought of only as taxation.