There is an email in circulation that sums up in scatalogical language the current tensions of UK politics. In polite summary, it says the people who work hard and earn the money are against having to pay more taxes. The people who rely on the state think these people are all rich and should pay more to sustain higher public spending. The government then wades in on the side of the public sector, and decides the self reliant and hard working should pay more. Those who pay the bills are attacked for being “rich”.
This is a crude characterisation in every sense. It does however strike a chord with a large number of people who do not think of themselves as rich but who do think they are already paying too much in tax and resent the idea that they should have to pay more.
Some of these tensions bubbled over in the words exchanged on the back of the riots. The law abiding taxpayers by and large were appalled that they would have to pay more taxes to repair the damage and make good. They wanted strong justice and tough punishments. Some in the public sector wanted to claim it showed we needed to spend more on social problems. I even saw a rioter or two “explain” his conduct by saying that the state took too much of his income away so he intended to grab something back by looting. People on this site have argued that because some in the public sector have taken too much by way of pay and perks, it set a bad example to others who then broke the law to take goods they did not themselves own. This is the false doctrine of two wrongs somehow make social justice.
The politics of austerity are never easy. Even when the Uk has been growing quite rapidly, there have been agruments over how to spend “the proceeds of growth”. It is easier for politicians to contain the tensions, as they can offer something more to most groups as they carve up the national pie. When an economy has lost 6% of output, and still is borrowing more than 10% of the total each year to keep itself going, much more difficult decisions have to be made about who is to take the hit of getting the deficit down.
The model in many people’s minds that the rich can be made to pay to solve the whole problem is both appealing and false. The size and scale of the debt, and the continuing large gap between state revenue and state costs, are far too big for the top one or two percent to solve the problem, even if they could be persuaded to stay here to pay the higher rates some have in mind. The debt and deficit is the the burden of all of us, whether we voted for it or no. It falls to the lot of many taxpayers to pay more tax to tackle it, just as it falls to most of the public sector to have to rein in costs and cut out less desirable spending to make its contribution. Modern politics is the argument about the balance between those two parts of the solution. Somehow there needs to be a growth strategy to offer hope and ease the pain, at the same time.
The problem with the politics of envy, peddling the idea that taxing the rich can solve the problem, is its easy popularity. Very few people think of themselves as rich. Most people know others in their immediate circle who are better off than them. All see stories of people who are fabulously wealthy in the papers, as their lives form the modern definition of news. The problem with the resulting policies that some wish to follow is many people would discover that the rich are not just the footballer in the paper or the millionaire down the street, but it includes them as well. Then they usually become less enthusiastic about the idea of taxing the rich. The few who say they do think they themselves should pay more tax have an easy answer. I am sure the Treasury would receive any donations that are on offer, and if they won’t there are many charities doing good work who will.