Any tax of mine must be yours, too

Click to follow
SO THE new editor of this newspaper comes in, and he looks solemn. 'We have a problem,' he says, 'and only you can help us.' I do my best to look keen and alert. 'Sales are going up,' says the Ed. 'Our precious reputation for relentless dullness is in peril. If we do not act quickly, thousands of trivially minded people may become attracted to these columns. They may go out and buy the newspaper. Then where would we be?'

He is right. This is terrible. I stop trying to look alert and try shrewd, instead. What must I do? 'Marr,' says the Ed, 'tell them about the moral issues underlying hypothecation.'

And so I will.

For this is a big question, even a moral question. Hypothecating taxes - that is, earmarking certain revenues for certain purposes, like the tax on booze and cigarettes for health care - reminds people why they pay taxes in the first place. It is a tactic intended to keep the tax- gatherers in business. It is meant, in the jargon, to 'reconnect' sceptical voters by reminding them that they are not paying money to 'the Government', but to hospitals and schools and gangs of road- builders. In the words of the Liberal Democrats, who advocate this great change, earmarking taxes increases 'the transparency of the tax system'.

At which point, various sour types are prone to pop up and object: but that is a lie. In fact, all governments reallocate funds all the time. You may think your money from road taxes is going to build more roads, but if there are enough roads, or a more important call on taxes elsewhere (perhaps unemployment has risen) then any responsible government will shift money around the system. Indeed, that is what government is about. Far from increasing transparency, hypothecation sets up a series of gaudy but misleading propaganda posters at the front gate of government, which then carries on privately behind them.

This is an accurate objection, but a nave one. Hypothecation is propaganda, of course, but all government requires some propaganda, it needs to get its messages over. And this is no worse, indeed better, than other forms of propaganda - like pretending to have abolished the business cycle. True, the Lib Dems entitled their proposals 'Being Honest About Taxation'. But that was just the kind of joke the party delights in. Malcolm Bruce, its Money spokesman, is a darkly witty prankster.

A more serious objection is that it encourages voters still further in the belief that government is nothing but a provider of services to the individual. You pay your health tax, you get your sickness relief. You pay your road tax, you get, for an hour or two, your hundred-mile-long sliver of tarmac. You pay your extra penny of income tax, you get good schools.

This causes problems. If you are buying services, the implication of choice is unavoidable. You can buy, or not. It suggests that if you have private health care, you might refuse to pay for the NHS, or that if you have no children, you might be 'let off' the extra payment for education. Just try it, that's all. True, there are quasi-taxes, such as bridge tolls and duty on legal drugs, that are directly linked to usage, and are therefore voluntary. But at the centre of the system there remains, for the foreseeable future, compulsory taxes for most of us. And any hint that this need not be so is, I am afraid, hooey.

Our collective hypocrisy about the state needs no encouragement. We already treat government spending as if it were gold from a magic sack hidden under the Bank of England, while treating attempts to tax us as confiscation, to be avoided by all means possible. When Conservatives talk about the dependency culture, they too often forget that this is a middle- class vice more than a working- class one.

Take the row over the change in the NHS rules on care of the elderly. Underlying much of the worry about the decline in cradle- to-grave provision has been a shameful but largely unexamined assumption: that the asset value of the parental home belongs, as of right, to the next generation, to be used for school fees, conservatories and off-road Japanese vehicles with silly names. It is, by contrast, the anonymous, general taxpayer who must pay for the parents' last years of nursing.

No one is suggesting, please note, that sons and daughters must sell their own assets to fund care for their parents, still less that they should do it themselves - just that they might not inherit the nice, hefty, double-glazed and pot plant-decorated chunk of personal capital they had been counting on. And this causes outrage. What kind of people are we becoming?

Well, consumers, in short. People who are becoming less adept at imagining larger, longer-term social goods, and rather too adept at grazing our way through immediate, here-and-now consumables. You might have thought, for instance, that yesterday's news of lower inflation and unemployment might have led to predictions that, within a couple of years, some of the serious social lacks currently pressing on us (such as schizophrenics who are not properly cared for) would be addressed. Not at all. It led to lip-licking predictions of Tory tax cuts before the next election. Tax cuts mean consumption, and a consumer society needs ever more of that stuff.

I find it hard to think of a more insulting, reductive label than 'consumer'. It is even worse than the ant-like term 'worker'. It evokes an obese, gobbling creature, all face and fart, quite horrible. And yet this is a badge we are in danger of adopting happily, and it poses the biggest question of all for tax. Zygmunt Bauman, a professor, has just published a brilliant moral tract, which is, I think, too gloomy but which is also wise, in which he says: 'There is a point somewhere down the slope, now perhaps passed, at which people find it very hard to conceive of any benefit they could derive from joining forces: of any improvement which could come from managing a part of their resources jointly, rather than individually.'

Pretending that being taxed is just like discretionary consumer spending is, therefore, a further surrender by those who believe in collective action as a good - an expedient and perhaps even necessary caving-in to the spirit of the age. But at some point, politicians are going to have to start taking that spirit on. If 'community' means anything, it means sacrificing personal time and personal consumption for the sake of other people. General taxation, like taking responsibility for your family, is an essential part of that, a reality that can be softened and explained but cannot, ultimately be hidden.

'Good,' said the Ed, 'No one will have made it this far.'

'Alone Again: Ethics after Certainty', pounds 5.95, Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP.