SANDWICHES FOR THE COMMON GOOD
The Times, Saturday March 7th, 2020
I was recently in Westminster discussing economic policy with senior aides from one of our main parties. Suddenly, the leader of the party popped their head round the door – not to chip in with a nugget of wisdom – but to tell us there was some food left over next door from another meeting. Sharing a few sandwiches and crisps round the office is what any of us would do in similar circumstances. This story is only unusual because it involves the leader of a main political party. Now on the one hand, we can reduce such offers to their utilitarian basics as merely the provision of calories and gratification. But exchanging food, perhaps especially in an office environment, is more about the value of relationships than it is about nutrition. It’s a reflection of our shared humanity.
I mention all this because when Rishi Sunak stands up to deliver next week’s budget, a similar determination of the good life will be on the table and each one of us needs to decide how to partake. For on the one hand, it is perfectly possible to interpret the budget through an individualistic prism. Under this guise, we analyse it for what it will do to my personal tax liabilities, whether private or via corporate rates and reliefs. We similarly appraise its spending announcements as to whether they align with my priorities and interests. In this way, the whole of the budget is refracted through the lens of my individual concerns.
But there is an entirely different way to view it. For when the chancellor appears at the dispatch box he is, to some extent, meant to be representing the gathered will of the people. As such, we can point to a range of collective ideas that are the real significance of national budgets. The first of these is that what we tax and how we spend is making a statement about the values we hold as a society. Perhaps the obvious example here is education. I am yet to meet a single person who does not think that the public purse should fund the bulk of primary and secondary schooling. This is true even for those who do not (and may not ever) have children. Of course, it is partly because they benefit from having well-educated doctors, lawyers and accountants, but it is also because we recognise the inherent value of education itself. This is the point that the recent analysis of graduate earnings by the IFS failed to address. People do not just do degrees in order to earn more money. Some do them because of their intrinsic value. I certainly didn’t give up being a doctor to study theology because I thought it would make me money!
How we tax and spend also plays a role in addressing the common problems that we face. The two current threats are climate change and coronavirus. Both of these require a national (if not global) solution. Yet while the budgetary decisions surrounding them may or may not benefit me as an individual, they certainly benefit us as a collective. Indeed, if I have a certain level of health and wealth, then it is quite likely that extra taxation to fund an expanded NHS, or imposition of carbon taxes may well not be in my personal interest. Nevertheless, at a time like this, it would be a strange sort of parsimony that would not want to channel our spending in this way.
Perhaps, most importantly, taxation actually works as a stimulus for democracy itself. Democracy is far more than just voting; it concerns the sense the populace has that its own government is accountable, that in the end it is the people who are in charge. This, incidentally, is why you can engineer multi-party elections in countries without a history of them, but you cannot so easily engineer democracy. It is about hearts and minds as much as it is about ballot boxes. That is why taxation serves the purpose of democracy. We know that citizens who are taxed are also more likely to vote. It is one of the mechanisms they use to ensure their money is spent appropriately.
Social values, national challenges, the democratic ideal – none of these will appear on an individual utility calculus. They are all, instead, a reflection of the common good, that which we, as a society, have chosen to value. Next week’s budget will offer us a vision of who we are. In a time of national crisis, when the need for a collective vision is greater than ever, I seriously hope that a common purpose is what the chancellor lays on the table.
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice