The immorality of tax-dodging - reserve some indignation for the State

The basis of taxation - especially of the super-rich, but also of the increasing numbers who feel no great traditional or ethnic attachment to the nation - must be solidarity, whose only sustainable basis is a common view of the good we're building. The State needs to recognise its duty in supplying that if we are to solve our fiscal crises

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
24 June 2012

The modern nation - whether it acknowledges it or not - must follow the precept first laid down by the French revolutionaries. The modern nation must strive to establish a social order that delivers "liberté, égalité, fraternité".

The way Britain woke-up this week to tax-dodging demonstrates not only a yearning for the first two, but also a belated recognition that the third is a vanishing sentiment and motivator in politcs. Tax dodging will not be fixed by simplifying the tax code or by a crack-down - it can only be fixed by a revival of the belief that we are together in a project that we wish to put our hearts into.

The New Statesman carries an empassioned plea by Willard Foxton that we all pay our taxes. He opens provocatively, for his likely audience in the left-leaning magazine:

I must confess, I am a tax-dodger. As I am a Tory, and you are a New Statesman reader, this may come as no surprise. My sin was grave - last night, on my way home from work I bought some biscuits on a two for one deal, thus avoiding several pennies of VAT.

But what he goes on to argue - that the way in which the rootless super-rich and the rootless multinational play the system by making full use of the mobility of their capital and their lifestyles will strike a chord both left and right:

In conclusion, this isn't a left-wing problem or a right-wing problem - it's a huge cancer eating at our democracy, our business community and our ability to pay down the deficit. 
Our tax code is fundamentally broken, easily abused by the unscrupulous, and HMRC is absolutely not fit for purpose. These are crucial national problems that can't be swept under the rug.  

In a completely knee-jerk way, it is hard for me to read the language of "cancer" ... "national problem" without a sense of the revival of a division that I'd rather we'd transcended: between those who belong and those who don't. I know, deep inside, that if that division were to become politically potent again, I'd want to be on the side of those who don't belong.Now ... I must confess that I am usually on the side of the rootless, pretty much regardless of their income level. I am steeped in a post-Holocaust, post-Stalin culture that is endlessly suspicious of the coercive powers of the rooted. Echoes of accusations of "rootless cosmopolitanism" send me rushing for the exits. However much my refugee father tried to create an assimilated Englishman in me, for some reason what stuck was a great attachment to the un-attached.

For the modern rootless rich, the nation is a club whose membership is in fact, and not just in contractarian theory, by mutual agreement. That mutual agreement is exactly the role of the "fraternité" that the revolutionaries of 1789 recognised had to be produced by the modern nation. (A sexist formulation - better to replace it with "solidarity"). Without solidarity- the idea that what we are creating together is valuable, and is a project in which each of us has a valued role - you cannot expect the mutual agreement that must be the basis of taxation either of those who owe no traditional allegiance to the State or those whose allegiance is not forced by circumstance. That, of course, includes the super-rich, but also includes many of the young who would happily start a professional life elsewhere, recent immigrants, especially from within the EU, who are comfortably mobile, as well as a large band of the professional rich who are part of a globalised workforce. All those groups, like it or not (and I do tend to like it) are swelling in rank.

Many of the super-rich who are paying very low taxes are also very generous philanthropists. Same goes for the multinationals that are such efficient exploiters of their domiciliar mobility. Michael Edwards has long argued that this sort of "philanthrocapitalism" is no replacement for the democratic politcs of taxation and state spending. He is right. What democracy brings to the party is equality - you cannot be true to the values of the French revolution, of the Enlightenment, if we remain at the autocratic whim of the global plutocracy.

But it is hard to see how any nation can any longer simply assume the consent of their less rooted citizens. They (we, I suppose I should say) are no longer so desperate for security somewhere - anywhere - that we will be thankful for whatever Hobbesian protector we can get. In that sense, the problem the modern state has with collecting taxes from these groups is the sign of a better world, not one that is disintegrating.

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" - I'd be surprised if any of the baddies in Foxton's view of the world would not genuinely sign-up to that vision of the good society. The modern state needs to show that it is serious and creative about delivering these if it wants to solve the tax dodging problem. And if it doesn't convince us that it can, if we do not have a common project that unites us, its fiscal crisis will only get worse. Fewer and fewer citizens will feel the bonds of solidarity that make taxation legitimate; attachment will weaken; and the State will be able to count on less and less "easy" revenue.

I'm not seeking to excuse tax-dodging. I am arguing that it is not just a matter of stopping wealthy individuals and foot-loose corporations from bending the rules. To demand and pay tax is to make and accept a wider claim of togetherness and solidarity which is challenged by the global economy. The rich, the super rich and the corporations may well be exploiting their adherence to a humanity that is not constrained by national or ethnic belonging. But there are many others, and an increasing number, who are similarly part of that global humanity. And we won't re-establish the solidarity we need without creatively bringing into the fold of the modern project of the state this larger, global humanity that all of these groups so powerfully represent.

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