Saturday, October 31, 2015

Taxpayers' money.

Former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who was voted out by the electors of Bury North in May this year, caused rather a lot of discussion when he posted on Twitter this morning that

"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society. So tax due isn't 'taxpayers' money' it's the govt's"

Chris Williamson's tweet was quoting and referred to a blog post here on Richard Murphy's "Tax Research UK" blog which makes essentially the same argument in much more detail.

This is basically saying three things, one of which I and most of the people who challenged Mr Williamson have no problem with, one which is legally true but I would have worded differently, and one which people are really objecting to.

1) Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society.

I don't challenge that and I've not seen anyone else do so either, since taxes pay for things like courts, schools, hospitals which a civilised society needs.

2) Mr Williamson objects to money raised from taxation being described as 'taxpayers' money.'

 This is the bit I disagree with for reasons I will come back to in a moment.

3) Tax due belongs to the government.

If you accept that the elected government has the right to raise tax - and I didn't see anyone challenge that and certainly didn't challenge it myself - then of course this is legally true, but the moral position is that all money raised by the government is held in trust on behalf of all citizens.

The government certainly does not own that money in the sense of being entitled to do whatever they like with it.

Richard Murphy's original blog post took the argument that the state can decide it owns anything and everything to it's logical conclusion, stating that

"I would suggest that we don’t as such pay taxes. The funds that they represent are, I suggest, in fact the property of the state. After all, if we give the state the power to define what we can own, how we can own it and what we can do with it – and we do – then  I would argue that we also give the state the right to say that some part of what we earn or own is actually its rightful property and that we have no choice but pay that tax owed as the quid pro quo of the benefit we enjoy from living in community."

Murphy contrasts this view with it's polar opposite, the "neoliberal" who thinks that taxation is theft, but I'd argue that you don't have to be anywhere near that extreme an individualist to recoil in shock at the idea that "the state" can unilaterally decide that anything we think we own, "the state" owns.

There was a time when Kings thought that they were the state, and they had a divine right to anything we had. Part of in the struggle between Kings and parliament was the struggle to establish the principle that everyone has rights and nobody, not even the monarch, is above the law. That principle still applies to a democratic government and to parliament itself,

Murphy's blog post is a perfect illustration of a saying, sometimes ascribed to Ronald Reagan or Davy Crockett but which I believe was actually first said by Thomas Jefferson:

Let me come back to why I argued against Chris Williamson's first tweet.

In my experience, when someone describes public money as taxpayer's money they are invariably doing to so to make one or both of two points, both of which I believe to be entirely valid

a) Public funds do not come from some kind of magic money tree. It was all raised from somebody, nearly always through taxes, which means telling taxpayers to hand over a share of the money they have earned through their own efforts to be spent by someone else for the public good. Those who are deciding how to spend public money should remember the cost that spending imposes on taxpayers, who are not all billionaires - many of them are ordinary people working all the hours God sends to keep their families fed and clothed.

b)  Public money does not belong to the individual members of any government, council or public body, they hold it in trust for the rest of society and have a duty to the whole of society, especially but not exclusively to those who actually paid it, to see that the money is spent wisely on the purposes for which it is raised.

Incidentally there is nothing necessarily right-wing about either of those arguments. I would have expected 90% of Labour MPs to agree with them and can think of at least one of the MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn who I would be astonished to learn disagreed with what I have written above

Unless you can find a hole in either of the principles laid out as a) and b) above - and I don't believe there is one - the political point being made by those who describe public money as "taxpayers' money" is valid. The attempt by Richard Murphy and Chris Williamson to de-legitimise this use of that expression is therefore, in my humble opinion misguided.

My disagreement with Messrs Murphy and Williamson's objection to calling public money "taxpayers' money" and to Richard Murphy's statement that "we don't as such pay taxes," because the government can decide it owns anything we have, is NOT based on opposition to the principle that the government has the right, if it believes it to be in the public interest, to legislate through due process of law to raise taxes and enforce the collection of those taxes.

It is based on the belief that governments of whatever persuasion are more likely to govern fairly and well if they remember who paid the money they obtained from taxes, and that it is not their own money but is held in trust for the people.

And for at least 700 of the past 800 years, that opinion would NOT have been labelled "right-wing."

That's the main point I wanted to make but it is perhaps worth adding a few words about what was subsequently posted on twitter.

All the responses to Mr Williamson's post which I've seen were perfectly civil, and all of them disagreed with to the argument that government money should not be called taxpayer's money rather than the "taxes are the price we pay for a civil society" point.

That, of course, did not fit the narrative he wanted to paint when trying to defend himself, so instead he tweeted first that "rightwing trolls were out in force" and "Tory trolls" had shown amazing vitriol "because I had the temerity to say that taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilised society."

Without apparent irony, and again referring to the people who disagreed with him as trolls, Chris Williamson then tweeted a picture of Nye Bevan's "lower than vermin" quote - an insult which Bevan applied to the entire Conservative party - and suggested that this quote was still apposite.

Let's just take a reality check here. First of all, if anyone has expressed an aversion to using taxes to create a civilised society, I have not seen any such comment: what I have seen is people disagreeing, reasonably politely, with his objection to the use of the expression "taxpayers' money."

If any of the people who responded to Chris Williamson's tweet did so in an offensive or abusive manner, I would condemn that, whoever it was. I didn't see that. I did see people who merely disagreed with him, and they were entitled to do so. That does not make them trolls.

Second, someone who calls an entire political party "lower than vermin," irrespective of whether it is done by regurgitating a quote from a long-dead politician, because of some tweets he disagrees with, is on very shaky ground calling anyone else a troll.


Jim said...

I think the analogy of a club works well here.

lets say we have a club, Im going to use a fishing club again (there is a fishing pond just a few yards from my home so its easy to relate to)

OK, so the members (lets say there are 200 of them) decide in the AGM what they want from the club (what bait is allowed, what the lake should stock, and what the policy on caught fish is (do we keep a quota or do we catch, photograph and release. Now to meet the requirements of the members, each member needs to pay a membership fee. They do this to a selected board (lets say a chairman, a secretary and a treasurer) these 3 people are the "government" they are there to do the will of the members, so everyone is happy to remain a member of the club. All money collected is not the property of the 3 board staff, it is the property of the Club on the whole, and the club on the whole of course is the 200 members. It is spent by directly by the 3 board members, but it is spent in accordance with the will of the 200 members as decided in club meetings. This allows for a general consensus of things rather than having 200 different fighting over how to spend the money, the club reach an agreement.

Now a government and a nation is bigger than the fishing club, but the principle is the same, meaning the money raised from tax is the property of the people of the nation, that is the taxpayer, not the board (or the government)

Chris Whiteside said...

I entirely agree with everything you say there. It says something quite alarming about Chris Williamson that he appears to be suggesting that all members of the Conservative party, and probably also people like yourself, are "lower than vermin" because we think that.

Jim said...

Personally, I think Chris Williamson is failing to distinguish between "a person who pays tax" (an individual who pays his membership fee) and the term commonly used "the taxpayer" meaning of course a citizen of the nation or "the fishing club"

I personally think that is his problem, does not understand the term "taxpayers money" in its usual way.

Jim said...

I like to make things clear as day, so when each member pays his fishing club fee, that money ceases to be the property of that particular member.
It becomes instead "members" money, or "club" money.

much like when a person who pays their tax pays it, that money ceases to be the property of that certain person who pays tax, and instead at that moment becomes "Taxpayers money