20 February 2015

Thought for the Day statism has nothing to do with Christianity

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It’s time to challenge the neo-Marxism dressed up as Christianity that appears to dominate Thought for the Day, the daily religious slot in the UK on BBC Radio 4. CapX Editor Iain Martin introduced Thought for the Day Watch after being dismayed with its view on Greek debtproperty rights, and Islamic State.

The prevailing assumptions of its producers seem to go like this:

  • Redistributive taxation is morally superior
  • High absolute levels of taxation are necessary
  • Real poverty is defined by income inequality not absolute need
  • Responsibility for social well-being lies primarily with the state

Why are these positions never challenged? Individuals are entitled to hold these views. However, to cover these questionable moral assumptions with Christianity not only misreads Christianity but also displays a woeful understanding of history, ethics and economics. These are political opinions and they should be presented as just that.

Here are a few salient facts from the Bible which I have yet to hear expounded on Thought for the Day:

  • God put Adam into the garden to work. What is more, God provided the raw materials of manufacturing and innovation. As well as the water of the rivers that flowed round the garden God provided gold, resin and precious stones. The point is a very simple one. At the beginning of time, God desired human beings to be entrepreneurial creators of wealth. The details are in Genesis chapter 2, verses 10-15.
  • Jesus was the prototype entrepreneur, working in his earthly father’s family business for at least 17 years, (aged, say, 13-30 years). The profitability of the Nazareth Carpentry is an inconvenient truth. If the business were not profitable then it would have been unsustainable over the course of the 17 years or so that it occupied in Jesus’ own life, not to mention prior to his birth and after he left the business. It was a family business. Jesus will have shared in the profits. We simply do not know what arrangements were made for the payment of the ‘living wage,’ the avoidance of zero-honours contracts or what tax planning exercises Joseph, Mary and Jesus carried out. The fact, however, is that Jesus was a key player in a small and medium sized business.
  • One of the disciples mentioned in Acts was a business woman. Three cheers. The Bible is promoting the equality of women in business; therefore, that all boardrooms must comply with a quota might be the interpretation at Thought for the Day. Well, here is another inconvenient truth. Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman (a dealer in purple cloth – very, very expensive), who owned property.
  • Now, a very inconvenient truth. The Bible says (it’s in 2 Thessalonians 3:10), ‘the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ What? No welfare state or common treasury, no redistributive taxation? I am afraid not.

I’d like now to explore the theme of taxation. What is the purpose of taxation? To some, taxation is a tool to achieve the redistribution of income. To others, the role of taxation is simply to raise the necessary funds for the provision of ‘public goods’ which the market cannot or will not provide. The former will usually feature high and progressive taxation. However, the role of taxation is established by a pre-determined political purpose.

Hence, there is nothing intrinsically moral about either high or progressive taxation. Indeed, one might argue to the contrary. Firstly, higher taxation may not raise more tax (the Laffer Curve), so whatever the motivation behind the tax system, it may not deliver as intended with high marginal rates. Secondly, an extra pound raised for the government means a pound less at the disposal of individuals, of families and of philanthropic activities. This is crucial. There is no greater morality attached to a government pound than a pound used in support of family life or philanthropic cause. To the extent that such spending encourages enterprise, reduces reliance on the state and achieves social purposes more effectively and efficiently, then there is in fact a moral imperative to reduce taxation.

What about the collection of the tax that is due? There is an absolute moral obligation to comply with the rule of law (in a free, democratic society) including, of course, the payment of tax that is due.

How much tax should a person pay? Answer – the amount determined by the laws established by the legislature.

The UK tax code and legislation runs to some 11,000 pages. The legislation is complex. There are numerous provisions, allowances, schemes. There are exemptions, compliance requirements, elections and claims to be made.

An individual or corporation who complies with these requirements cannot be said in any way to be acting either illegally or immorally. If the politically elected legislature wishes to change the provisions of the tax code then that is precisely what they must do. Legislators legislate. Politicians, therefore, should be very wary indeed of criticising those that comply with what they have passed into law.

Indeed, in the light of the previous discussion on tax morality, should the taxpayer minimise their tax liability?

There is a very strong case for so doing. It has been axiomatic in English tax law that the taxpayer may so organise their affairs so as to pay the minimum amount of tax, a precedent set by the Commissioners of the Inland Revenue v. Duke of Westminster, 1936. How could any alternative be credible – perhaps a requirement that the taxpayer should organise their affairs to pay the maximum amount of tax? We are back to ‘legislators legislate,’ and taxpayers comply.

The moral answer for paying the minimum of tax lies in the prior discussion of the purpose of tax and the relative morality attached to government or personal expenditure. Are there any limits? Yes, there are. It has also been long established that artificial transactions or structures with the sole purpose of avoiding tax are irresponsible in a free society. The Inland Revenue possesses considerable powers to deal with such transactions. Yet we should be very wary indeed of giving more powers to the tax authorities to pursue taxpayers complying with both their legal and moral obligations.

Of course, from this sort of debate comes the distinction between tax planning (a pension contribution), tax avoidance (timing of sales, investing in allowable activities, structuring transactions) and tax evasion (illegally evading that which is due). The only moral debate really revolves around the more aggressive forms of tax avoidance.

High taxation and progressive taxation are not intrinsically moral. Indeed there is a very good argument to the contrary. There is a balance in society between the rights of individuals to plan their affairs to minimise their tax liabilities (for all the good reasons stated), the laws passed by the legislature and the powers of the executive arm (HMRC) to enforce. The current rather sanctimonious debate around taxation has the danger of destabilising this balance by increasing the power of the executive, getting the legislature off the hook for lack of clarity and to the damage of individuals, families and society.

Hence, there is a good moral argument, and for those of faith, a good Christian or biblical argument for low taxation, minimising liability whilst acting properly under the law. The problem is that argument comes from the Right, not the Left, and does not fit in with the TFTD narrative of Christianity and socialism being as one. Of course the Bishops often collude in such arguments with the groupthink that characterises many of their individual and collective utterings.

I forgot to mention John Wesley. In his famous sermon on money, his maxim was ‘earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Another inconvenience for the modern Christian socialists.

This is an argument you won’t hear anytime soon on the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

Revd Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford.