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Why society needs tax to fight materialism

by
06 December 2006

by Jill Segger

IN this season, once called Advent but now colonised by the marketing industry, which has re-branded it as “the run-up to Christmas”, it is tempting to rant about consumerism. Resisting that enticement, however, need not preclude looking beyond seasonal irritations to the wider implications for our social health and cohesion.

IN this season, once called Advent but now colonised by the marketing industry, which has re-branded it as “the run-up to Christmas”, it is tempting to rant about consumerism. Resisting that enticement, however, need not preclude looking beyond seasonal irritations to the wider implications for our social health and cohesion.

The undiscriminating frenzy of the winter shopping-fest is an intensified manifestation of the ascendancy of the customer over the citizen. Despite the received wisdom that advanced capitalism is a force of nature, which may be neither resisted nor ameliorated — “You can’t buck the market” — the increasing influence of this societal shift on our perceptions is due at least in part to the inexcusable failure of a centre-Left government to grasp the nettle of realistic progressive taxation. The Blair administration has also failed to establish the moral case for the place of tax in nourishing the common good.

When Labour came to power in 1997, the timidity arising from 18 years in opposition quickly became apparent. Massive popular support for a change of tone offered the new leadership a unique opportunity to repudiate the dogma that taxation is always bad and should be resisted as an infringement of personal liberty.

In shrinking from the challenge inherent in that opportunity, New Labour failed to present a moral re-calibration of the relationship between private gain and public good. It has gone on failing for almost ten years. As a result, the political Right has won the argument by default. Tax of all kinds is now cemented into the popular consciousness as some kind of insult to freedom.

That concept of liberty has become all but inextricable from the right to consume as desired. “I can afford it — why shouldn’t I?” runs the justification. A belief that the ability confers the right has disturbing antecedents and dangerous consequences. Morally responsible citizens, striving to balance personal desires with the effects of those desires on the wider community, are undermined by this philosophy. They are encouraged to redefine themselves as customers: individuals whose status is defined by the temporary arrangements and vested interests of commercial transactions.

Consider the jargon of the ad-man: “It’s all about you!” These relationships have nothing to do with the enduring mutuality on which the well-being of humankind depends. Choice is the new buzzword, and the customer is always right.

Expect therefore the vilification of any legislation that restricts actions arising from that solipsistic mindset. The definition of the duty of government offered by the political philosopher John Rawls, “to adjudicate where interests collide”, has no meaning for the new breed of libertarian consumer, who sees only conspiracy or affront where that duty is exercised.

The popular response to the Stern report on climate change has illustrated this ugly state of mind with a clarity that may yet serve to warn of the dangerous direction of a culture increasingly unwilling to accept curtailment in any cause. The unvarying response of the vox pop interviews in the days following the publication of the report was to condemn green taxes as “another excuse for them to take money off us”.

Fiscal levers are the mechanisms for effecting change in patterns of consumption and behaviour necessary to our survival. But this simple fact was not on the radar of those who have been seduced into believing that cheap air fares and the use of huge SUVs on the urban school run are the inalienable rights of a free people. The less responsible end of the media ran with the self-interest of their customers, and mounted the same bandwagon of indignation: “Green tax blitz: I’m saving the world — you lot are paying”, said the News of the World.

The whine of the spoiled child has become a substitute for the morally alert voice

Fiscal levers are the mechanisms for effecting change in patterns of consumption and behaviour necessary to our survival. But this simple fact was not on the radar of those who have been seduced into believing that cheap air fares and the use of huge SUVs on the urban school run are the inalienable rights of a free people. The less responsible end of the media ran with the self-interest of their customers, and mounted the same bandwagon of indignation: “Green tax blitz: I’m saving the world — you lot are paying”, said the News of the World.

The whine of the spoiled child has become a substitute for the morally alert voice

Thus commercial interest reinforces ignorance. Short-term selfishness is enabled to nestle in a comfort-blanket of mass opinion. This repudiation of recycling was overheard in the street: “A waste of effort. If it was worth anything, they’d be paying me to do it.” Such an approach invites an adjustment of Oscar Wilde’s description of the man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing, as a cynic. Lacking even that small claim to sophistication, such a man is the dupe of a shallow and selfish culture. The whine of the spoiled child has become a substitute for the morally alert voice, while the knee-jerk responses of the constitutionally discontented are mistaken for evidence of acuity.

This consumerist diminution of the dignity of the citizen has coincided with a decline in the influence of external moral authority. Where individuals once regulated their behaviour by the values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which served as a marker for believers and non-believers alike, they now need only to follow whatever has been pronounced as “cool” by profit-driven cultural arbiters in order to gain approbation.

In politics, ideology — the framework of honesty and consistency — has been diluted by a managerial credo of “whatever works”. The dissolution of old beliefs has left us rudderless. Essential critical re-assessment has too often been deformed into rejection — perhaps because that is easier than working out an effective expression of faith, morals, and social policy for a fast-moving society.

  That is our challenge. To explore the responsibilities of loving our neighbours as ourselves is a good place to begin. The children of a triune God cannot live only unto themselves.

Jill Segger is a freelance writer who contributes to Tribune, The Catholic Herald, The Friend, and other publications.

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