It could be time to boost the money we earn from the landby Philip Collins / June 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
Tax collectors have not always been portrayed favourably
The most important piece of legislation this year was not contained in the Queen’s Speech. It was passed on 5th April when the application for a mandate to renew income tax was raised in parliament. Income tax, which was first levied in 1799 to raise funds for the Napoleonic Wars, is, strictly speaking, temporary to this day. The government has to pass an annual Finance Act to make income tax legal again.
This oddity contains a message. Tax will never be popular and income tax especially so. There is something about the taxing of income which has always been resisted. There have been periods when the entire political conversation seems to have turned on whether it was, or was not, possible to increase (or for a Conservative, cut) the top rate of income tax. To understand why, it is important to heed what Albert Einstein said on filing tax returns: “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”
The underlying question is: what is tax for? The best answer is the most direct and the simplest. Taxation is an unfortunate necessity given the requirement to raise public funds in a complex society of many needs.
Of course, tax comes freighted with moral arguments on both sides. The social democrat tends to see tax as the road to the progressive future. It is the means by which fairness, so evidently absent in the original market distribution of earnings, is allowed a second chance. It is not merely the raising of money for social programmes: it is itself a moral question. It is no coincidence that the only precise meaning that can be given to the all purpose left-of-centre compliment “progressive” is with regard to income tax.
On the political right, virtue often gives way to vice. Taxation is regularly conceived as an evil to be avoided, somehow an illegitimate confiscation of private property. This is linked to a sceptical account of how well government will spend the money gathered. The non-libertarian right has always, in practice, presided over a large state apparatus—indeed, the supposedly neo-liberal years of Margaret Thatcher added to public spending rather dramatically—but the resultant taxation is usually seen as the necessary price of the devil’s work rather than a moral virtue in itself.
Whatever the assumptions at…