Sowing the seeds: Tax is Liberating
Its the 6th birthday of Graham’s Grumbles today! To celebrate, I’m posting something here which I wrote for Student Christian Movement‘s blog series leading in to their Seeds of Liberation conference.
Tax has always been a contentious topic. In 1773, Britain tried to force American colonists to pay taxes on tea imports. In an act of civil disobedience, crates of tea worth nearly £1million in today’s money were thrown off ships and into the harbour. What became known as the Boston Tea Party became a rallying cry for many on issues of who gets taxed, by whom and at what rates.
Ghandi also took a particular interest in tax. In 1915, he organised protests against land tax that was impoverishing peasant farmers, and in 1930 he led a 400km march against salt taxes. Again, both issues involved a far off British government imposing its will without consultation.
Since 2008, America has seen a wave of Tea Party protests and Tea Party candidates, running as Republicans, and getting elected to positions of power. Where the historical events in Boston ran under the slogan “No taxation without representation”, today’s Tea Party talks about freedom through lowering and removing taxes.
But this notion that eliminating tax will lead to freedom is profoundly misguided, and is largely a new idea. Both Ghandi and the American colonists intended taxation to continue, but in different interests. As we pay income tax, VAT or any other kind of tax, we are involved in at least three positive principles, the first of which is representation; those who pay taxes have a stake in how the money is spent.
Second, it provides revenue for all sorts of government functions. Whilst we may disagree with the spending priorities being chosen for us, money from tax liberates us from ignorance through education, from illness through health care, and from poverty through benefits. But vastly more importantly, it liberates us from the fear of getting ill and losing our jobs. Education is liberating because it leaves us better able to comprehend and respond to events and dynamics around us.
Or rather tax should liberate us from all those things. With tax revenues falling as a result of tax dodging, governments lack money. Every pound that is dodged is a pound less to spend on these vital areas of life. But with close ties to big business, governments are reluctant to tackle the issues, and so cuts are proposed.
Finally, there is redistribution (did you notice they all begin with ‘r’?). Redistribution says that those who have the most pay the most, and those who cannot afford to pay can still get help regardless. For those in poverty, the liberating dimension of redistribution is obvious: they can hopefully afford food and shelter, especially in times of crisis.
But is it still liberating if you’re paying more than you’re receiving? I could argue that less money for the well-off to spend means less clutter and simpler, more wholesome living. But I think this just shows how sold we are on the ideas of individual consumerism. So let’s look instead at what it means to have a more equal society.
Researchers Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson observe in their book ‘the Spirit Level’ that a more equal society does better. The issues they looked at were big ones: levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, educational performance, murder rates and imprisonment. They didn’t find that a society with more money does better – both America and Portugal, polar opposites as far as Western countries go, have bad records on all these things, whilst the countries that did the best didn’t have the most money, only the lowest gap between the top and the bottom.
If we follow the logic of today’s Tea Party, liberation means being able to live life without reference to other human beings. God intended life to be lived in community and solidarity with one another and in a society of 70million people, tax is how we’ve come to ensure a bare minimum of communal spending is possible. It’s a more stable way of sourcing funds than charity and enables us to spend more of our time on the specific things we want to focus on, jobs, families and friends, without having to worry about the myriad other things we might need. Tax has the power to be truly liberating.