SUGGESTIONS that the rich and famous may be avoiding tax led to
indignant responses from Left and Right. The Left accuses
tax-avoiders of robbing society of schools and hospitals; the Right
replies with equal outrage: why should the taxman rob the
successful of a penny more than his legal due?
The rules of our tax system are so tortuous that nobody thinks
they can be fair, and both sides complain of being robbed. A
simpler system would help. Yet there will probably always be a need
for a grey area in matters of taxation.
Every government, whatever its political colouring, wants to
maximise tax revenue. But high rates for those with the highest
incomes do not always work. Some simply stop striving; others move
their business interests abroad. As Nigel Lawson discovered when he
cut the top rate of tax in 1988, revenues actually increased, and
he ended up with a welcome budget surplus.
Would this be true now? The rich have done spectacularly well
out of the recent recession. Their success marks a growing
inequality between those on the highest incomes and the rest of us.
Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century
(Harvard University Press, 2014) argues that capitalism will always
increase inequality. The prosperity it brought after the War until
the crash in 2008 was a mere blip.
Although his argument is non-political, his analysis is music to
the ears of the Left. It is galling for all of us to be lectured by
the emerging global class of the super-rich who genuinely believe
that because they are so capable and successful they will
inevitably make better choices than government how their money
should be spent. These are tax-avoiders who appear to be charged
with moral purpose.
However provocative such claims might be, we should hang on to
the fact that there is clear moral difference between tax-avoidance
and tax-evasion. Tax-avoidance can benefit society: schemes such as
ISAs encourage saving, which is good for all of us. Along with
simplifying the tax system, clarifying the difference between
avoidance and evasion is a priority.
It would be wrong, though, to go back to punitive tax-levels for
the rich. The Communist experiment proved that preventing wealth
does not cure poverty. Discouraging enterprise does not produce
jobs. It is a sad fact of human nature that when the corporate
state is everything, everyone cheats. If our tax-avoiders deserve
encouragement, our evaders should not be allowed to pretend that
they are being robbed by the State.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church,
Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the
diocese of Oxford.