…the infrastructure and services that we all rely on and the communities that we live in are only made possible by coordinated effort; few people can afford to build their own hospitals, roads, libraries or schools and even those that could would rely on harnessing the combined abilities and intellect of others to make their schemes a reality. The effective collection and administration of tax is one of the most innovative mechanisms for coordinating the contribution of individuals to achieve things of great significance; it may be abused in practice but the concept remains sound.
The effective collection and management of tax allows societies to benefit from developments in health, education and well-being that they could never have dreamed of if people simply labored with their own resources. Tax is still the original and best example of synergy at work; financial community teamwork, the large scale pooling of resources to deliver more than the sum of their parts…and this long before synergy became the sexy management buzz word that we all know it to be now.
If you’ve visited the Third World you’ll know that most if not all the citizens of these countries envy the infrastructure and services that many of us in more developed countries take for granted. If you asked Third World citizens the question, “would you like to live in a society that gathered regular contributions from its members in exchange for healthcare, education and sanitation”…the answer would be “yes; when can we start!” Living in societies that are structured to generate collective solutions to problems and challenges that could not be dealt with at the individual level is a privilege and not a right; after all, going to bed with a belly full of food has never been anything more than a random result of the place in which you were born and the time in which you were born to it. The organised collection of taxes is one of the signs that you live in such a structured and civilized society. Good services need paying for and as J K Galbraith noted, there would seem to be little point in us as individuals owning things of great value and beauty if our roads are not maintained, our rubbish is not collected, our schools are collapsing and our neighborhoods are unsafe. And as flawed and fallible as it is, the UK’s National Health Service is still the envy of much of the world and one of the greatest examples of the harnessing of tax contributions to deliver a wider common good.
Fans of Ayn Rand will doubtless be choking on their coffee at this point, or more likely reading someone else’s blog that appeals to their right wing dark-hearted compassion free natures. Such people believe that unfettered free enterprise and selfish individualism are alone capable of creating a world in which everyone can attain their rightful rewards. They believe that there is little if any need for collective responsibility, that the strong will prevail and the enterprising will ultimately make good; these people have probably never been to the Third World. If hard work and enterprise were all that was required to succeed in this life then the men and women of developing countries would all be squillionaires; they are not and there are countless people who speak four languages and work fourteen hour days that are living on a pittance…worryingly more and more of them are living in the societies that we like to think of as developed. I read Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, and its a fairy tale, a very (very) long and quite entertaining fairy tail, but still a fairy tail. It seems fitting that its been turned into fodder for a Hollywood movie. Rand’s philosophical waxing struck me as nothing more than a lazy thinkers excuse for not giving a damn about anyone else. A bible for the irresponsible capitalist; full of contradiction, fantasy and self affirming rhetoric.
But recognizing that you may live in a more structured society than others should never be an excuse for those living in it to sit back comfortably and say, “job done”… societies in every country are still very much a work in progress and whilst we might all acknowledge that the effective administration of taxes is vital to the collective well-being, we are not yet at a point at which we can say that the process of collecting and spending these combined resources is managed as well as it could be. The public sector that spends our collective taxes often appears to think in a bubble and persists in using tax-payers money on projects that are of limited value to the people that they are apparently supposed to be helping. As the halcyon days of Public Funding came to an end in the UK it was estimated that over the course of their lifetimes the nine Regional Development Agencies (RDA’s) of England had collectively spent over One Hundred Million Pounds on corporate brochures, promotional material and self-publicity and several Billion Pounds on subsidizing projects that the Private Sector was already committed to delivering…the RDA’s were scrapped in 2012 and whilst many including myself would acknowledge that they did some good; no-one could or should condone the spending of such amounts of taxpayers money subsidizing Private Projects, glossy brochures and promotional material…much of which never found its way out the stationery cupboard. How many copies of a sub-regional economic development strategy do you really want to share with your friends; or ex-friends if you insisted on sharing such things with them.
Taxpayers as the funders and consumers of Public Sector services should always have the right to question the “way things are done”. And this is where the Public Sector has fueled the suspicion of many and shot itself in the foot; it has lost the connection to those that fund it. Large parts of the Public Sector are still opaque and unanswerable to those that they purport to serve and who fund them. The Public Sector is there to deliver services to the Public; services which the Public consume in exchange for their collective resources and in such circumstances transparency should be a given, not a nice to have. In short, tax is a good thing, even a great thing, but as Calvin Coolidge noted; collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.