Dominic Lawson: How far must we go to appease envy?

On this proposition, supermodels should pay super-tax, because they were lucky to have the genetic inheritance which made them worth millions
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When George Osborne announced the Government's plans to remove child benefit from those earning more than £44,000, he declared that this was justified on grounds of "fairness". Yet, if the letters appearing in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph are any guide, never in the field of fiscal combat has so much unfairness been imposed by so few (G Osborne and D Cameron) upon so many middle-class mums.

We know, however, that the vast majority of the population do not share this outrage: The Sun – not exactly the voice of the middle classes – commissioned a poll by YouGov which suggested that 83 per cent of the public supported this scrapping of child benefit for those in the higher-rate tax bracket. Surprise, surprise, the proportion in favour of this proposal almost exactly corresponds to the proportion that will not be adversely affected by it. Although YouGov didn't ask this question, I suspect that those who are not losing this benefit will derive positive pleasure from Osborne's proposal: they will not actually be any better-off as a result themselves – but they will feel as though they are.

Interestingly, the biggest cause of anger on the part of those facing the removal of the benefit seems to be the fact that couples who are both working, but whose individual incomes are just below the £44,000 threshold, will continue to receive this form of child subsidy, whereas a home in which there is just a single earner, paying higher rate tax, will not.

In other words, their fury is not so much that they will no longer be receiving the benefit, but that some homes with more funds will not be suffering in the same way. Yet if those dual-income homes had been docked a similar amount it would make absolutely no difference to the welfare of the furious "single income" homes. Although no Tory has dared to do so, one could make a perfectly good stab at saying that this is not so dreadfully perverse.

The now celebrated dual-income homes in which each adult is earning £40,000 (and thus £80,000 in total) will still be paying much more tax overall than those in which one earner receives just over the amount at which the higher rate begins to bite: as a household, the former will thus be contributing that much more to the maintenance of public services. Moreover, it is almost certain that the dual-income households will be paying a great deal more for childcare than those in which the mother stays at home. Finally – and this was probably the real reason for Osborne's decision to target individuals rather than couples – do we want a government spy in the nation's bedrooms to establish who is really living with whom?

None of this will wash, however, with those who consider themselves the unfairly victimised losers. Resentment at the perceived relative good fortune of others is one of the most powerful of all human emotions. Indeed, the whole "fairness agenda" amounts to the politicians' latest attempt to handle this familiar toxic brew of resentment, and yes, envy.

For example, the Conservatives know that the new 50 per cent top rate of tax originally introduced by the last government may well not raise any extra revenues at all. The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies observed, at the time Labour made this proposal, that, "If the richest 1 per cent are as responsive to tax changes as they were in the 1980s [when the top rates were reduced], the current 40 per cent rate is already generating the maximum revenue; any change in the rate reduces government revenue".

The innocent brain-boxes at the IFS did not quite grasp the intention of the last government, and indeed that of Messrs Cameron and Osborne in refusing to scrap the new top rate: they had never intended the measure to be one which would increase the funds available for public expenditure. It was a measure of appeasement, specifically to appease any generalised public anger at the rich during a time of national budgetary retrenchment. In fact, Osborne and Cameron, being both publicly identified as millionaires, probably feel the need for such gestures of appeasement much more than did Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling. The same very political thought process might have been behind their perfectly reasonable decision to remove child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers – why else decide to make the announcement during a party conference, rather than, more properly, as a government in the House of Commons?

The more profound question is this: how far is it necessary for politicians in a democracy to go in order to appease resentment and even envy at the most fortunate in society? In his new book, Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society, Will Hutton asks: "In what sense is it remotely fair to talk in terms of due rewards for discretionary effort when so much of society's rewards fall to people who had the luck to be born with a particular talent, skill or beauty? Some people simply do not have any chance of reproducing the success of the talented, irrespective of the efforts they make."

On this general proposition, supermodels should pay super-tax, because they were simply lucky to have had the genetic inheritance which made them worth millions on the catwalk. We also know, for example, that a disproportionate number of high-earning bosses in the US cluster around a height of 6ft 2in. This seems to be the optimum height with which to transmit an impression of authority: yet no one can be said to "deserve" their height.

That great American writer Kurt Vonnegut based a short story on exactly this phenomenon. Harrison Bergeron, published in 1961, is a dystopian vision of a society which has taken concerns about unfairness to a logical conclusion. The 211th, 212th and 213th amendments to the US constitution demand that no American shall be made to feel inferior to another. The US Handicapper General, Diana Moon-Glampers, determines the various impediments which shall be imposed on the most "unfairly"intelligent or beautiful, in order to comply with the notions of equality in the Constitution.

The year before Vonnegut's book was published the British novelist L P Hartley produced a novel with the same theme. Facial Justice is based on the idea that in a society in which everything appears to have been equalised, envy remains "as the sole cause of personal distress and social friction". The novel begins: "Justice had made great strides. Legal Justice, Economic Justice, Social Justice ... had been attained; but there still remained spheres of human relationship and activity in which Justice did not reign." Hartley's satire then conjures up a terrifying institution called The Equalisation (Faces) Centre, which addresses with scalpels the resentment which the public continue to feel towards those they feel to be unduly rewarded by good fortune.

None of this means that the real-life politicians of today should not be concerned to alleviate genuine poverty, especially when it blights the life-chances of children from the earliest age. Yet what Vonnegut and Hartley can teach us is that politicians who act principally out of a desire to appease resentment are destined never to quell the social evil they seek to contain. George Osborne and David Cameron would do best to recognise that fact, and accept that they will satisfy none of their critics with the chimera of "the fairness agenda".