It is more than 20 years since a bishop wrote: “Christians should take a lead in a public campaign to challenge the assumption that everyone pays their taxes grudgingly and unwillingly. Taxation is a proper way by which wealth is distributed more fairly and by which the poor and the whole of society are given better opportunities.” That was an Anglican, David Sheppard, in Bias to the Poor. As critics were not slow to point out in 1983, it is highly controversial. Christians agree that there is an imperative to help the poor, but the assertion that taxation is a proper way to do so is no more than that; many think it is most improper. It is to abdicate our own responsibilities to others; it is to acquiesce with the least efficient method of helping the least fortunate, and to refuse to examine the possibility that — as with famine relief spent by dictatorial regimes on propping up their rule our money may do more harm than good.
But last week, the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales produced a depressingly similar view in the document Taxation for the Common Good. Despite the fall of the command economies of the Eastern Bloc, the nominal conversion of the Labour Party to the realities of the market and the recognition, even by Leftwing scholars, that communitarian concerns are often best addressed by voluntary organisations — of which the Church was once the leading example — Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff is pleased to hymn “the scale and breadth of what our society does, and is only able to do, as a result of a common willingness to pay taxes”.
Last week, this paper’s leading article admirably challenged that view. But there is more to this argument than merely the question of whether taxation is the best mechanism for supporting the less fortunate. When there are more administrators than hospital beds in the NHS, and twice as many managers have been recruited to the health service since 1996, that is, at the very least, contentious. (There are similar figures for the recruitment of teaching and non-teaching staff in education.) The bishops argue that “to progress and grow as a society we need a standard level of provision from the state, which we can then add to by personal choice”. Therefore, more money should be spent on the NHS, and — declares the document — those who opt for private health “should rightly pay”. Surely the argument is the opposite? Might one not argue that those who can pay for private provision have a Christian duty to do so, freeing resources for the poor.
One cannot impose Christian principles, and if one could, they would become morally worthless. If I spend my money on myself, I may be selfish; if I spend it on others, I acknowledge responsibility for whether it benefits or damages them. To spend other people’s money on other people — a straightforward definition of taxation — is to devolve that responsibility, and any thinking that might lie behind it.
The most disquieting aspect of Taxation for the Common Good is the failure to consider the real moral questions: the worthiness of a shared community, of solidarity with the poor, or building a just and healthy society are not in doubt. But the report makes no real attempt to grapple with the argument that tax may inhibit those objectives. It accepts an entirely unfounded assumption that taxation must be progressive in order to be fair. It shows a complete disregard for the envy, materialism, and resentment of the poor, asylum seekers and others which some justify by drawing attention to taxation. It ignores the burden which tax places on the poor, in order that their own money might, minus deductions, be returned to them. It argues that income tax (only really introduced in the mid-19th century) is “historically low” — an odd position for the representatives of an eternal Church.
Pascal believed that the first responsibility of morality was to think clearly. This document emotes; it does not think. Put the £3 it costs into the collection plate instead.
Andrew McKie is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph