Monday, 29 December 2014

In which Zoe Williams (inadvertently) makes the case for voluntarism...


OK perhaps that wasn't uber-statist Zoe's intention but her (or maybe The Guardian sub's) opening statement in a piece about tax is spot on:

Good policy can’t be devised on the basis that reasonable people must be coerced or conned into paying for our services

Sadly Zoe then goes on to gibber about how big companies don't pay enough tax and how she doesn't mind taxes just  "...the people who raise it, the people who spend it, and the way it is discussed". We get the usual Guardian caricature of the Tory (in the currently favoured figure of George Osborne) and a slightly ill-informed canter through some late 20th century political history.

But the statement is still there. If we are to have a system where some things are done collectively then there needs to be a system for people to share the cost of those things. Indeed Zoe describes the problem precisely:

It is impossible to devise good tax policy on the basis that reasonable people don’t want to pay it and have to be either coerced or conned into doing so. Deduction at source turns into the mug’s option while tax avoidance becomes the natural course of the prudent person. It is often said that HMRC doesn’t have the staffing levels to deal with avoidance as it currently stands, and that’s true – but actually the resources don’t exist in the world to police an activity that nobody believes is wrong in the first place.

So the question here is left hanging about like some bloke on the corner trying to look nonchalant because his date's 20 minutes late. So let's ask it a different way - can we have a system where people are happy to pay taxes? Zoe tries to make a moral argument - tax is an 'investment'. Now this is not only utter nonsense but fails to make the point, which is that tax is a payment for services recieved. And we coerce (i.e. make it illegal on pain of imprisonment not to pay the tax) because of the free rider problem.

Indeed it is that free rider problem - people getting the goods or services without paying - that is the biggest hurdle for voluntarism, for the idea that we can have collective action and the collective provision of public goods without the superstructure of the state. The answer, of course, lies in either preventing the non-payer from using said public goods (something that proved impossible when public goods were built with private finance by private investors) or else by making the charge low enough and the benefit great enough for it not to be worth nearly everyone's while avoiding the cost.

The problem with our current system is that many taxpayers look at how the money (or some of the money) gets spent and don't like it. This is the same whether the anger is directed at the government buying Trident nuclear missiles or at this:

The state will then proceed to piss this money – that I have earned – up the wall on various fake charities, foreign aid, quangos and an over-bloated third sector. These parasites will use this money to lobby the government to restrict further my liberties to live my life as I see fit  and campaign for the state to steal even more of my money.

We know that most people, regardless of political position, find the tax system unfair or excessive. And we know that European high-tax societies have a problem with tax dodging. Not just by high profile multinational corporations but by millions of ordinary workers:

 ...the latest estimates showed about 30 million people in the EU performed work that was not declared for tax. "Around half of all construction workers in Germany undertake shadow work; and over 80% of all Danes find shadow work acceptable – at least in some circumstances."

Somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of the British economy is outside the tax system either because it is illegal (prostitution, drugs, smuggling and so forth) or because people prefer to be paid in cash. The assumption that Zoe and her sort make is that simpler and lower taxes wouldn't generate enough to sustain the system so therefore we should all grow to love tax.

The things that the Guardian reader thinks important - pensions, a welfare syste, high quality healthcare for everyone and a sense of social justice - are not things that need to be provided by a central state through the imposition of coercive taxation. Indeed all such systems do is create a different sort of free rider - millions of people who receive more in benefits from the state than they pay in taxes to that state.

Voluntary collective action, for all its problems with governance and with free riders, doesn't receive the attention is receives. Prior to the creation of national state systems of health, welfare and education such voluntarism did provide such services to nearly everyone, it's a myth that there was no health provision for the poor prior to the NHS, no elementary schooling prior to the Forster Act, or no provision for welfare prior to Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions Act. These things existed and provided for nearly everyone.

I'm not sure you could run an entire nation on the basis of such voluntarism but I do think that such institutions - friendly societies, mutual finance, worker and customer co-ops and the like - are diminished by government and that private investment will (as the turnpikes and railways show) be forthcoming even where the return on capital is compromised by the free rider problem. If there is a business benefit to building a railway from London to Birmingham, businesses will finance it even where the return takes the form of a positive externality rather than cash dividends.

So here's to Zoe Williams for inadvertently making the case for replacing much of what government does with voluntary, collective and collaborative action funded by the willing and benefiting everyone.


No comments: