If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?

‘If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’ is not something anyone has ever asked me. In fact it may never have been asked by anyone. Instead, it’s the title of a book by the late political philosopher Jerry Cohen (who had an unexpected sideline in comedy). Cohen’s title suggests red-faced readers, shouting at the absent professor from armchairs: ‘Hand over more of your own money! Hands off mine’. But the foundation of this complaint is accepted on all sides: at some (unspecified) point, tax stops. After that point it’s up to you if want to give money away for the greater good. You’re free to give if you want, and if you do give, you’re free to form your own vision of the greater good. You can even make this a kind of voluntary tax if you want, like the members of Giving What we Can. I hope that Giving What We Can thrives, whatever happens to income tax rates. But it’s not a substitute for tax. Giving out of choice is, quite rightly, a personal thing. Perhaps you have a relative with cancer, or a love of donkeys; your charitable giving can reflect that where your taxes can’t. Which is great. If you try to make these preferences do the work of taxes, though, you end up with more money going to animal charities than to disabled humans. People in need are often helped in proportion to their visibility and likeability; when did you last go to a  jolly coffee morning at the office for the women’s refuge movement, or victims of sexual abuse? I’m not the first person to make this point (actually I’m not the first person to make any point on this blog; I’m just relying on the power of repetition as my persuasive strategy). But Cohen makes a different point in If you’re an egalitarian. Lets say I choose to pledge x% of my post tax income to charity, but all my friends and family stick to spending that money on pies, take away coffees, rare breeds of Chihuahua etc. Next time I’m invited for a pie, a coffee or a trip to Crufts, I have to say ‘no’, because I gave all my money to ‘A representative group of charities which statistically matches the needs of the UK people’. Giving heavily to charity instead of paying higher tax doesn’t just mean I can’t buy as much stuff; it also cuts me off from the people who matter to me. If I, and all the friends and family, paid that x% as tax, I’d be none the richer in one sense (the sense that, er, I wouldn’t actually have any more money). But I’d be a lot richer in the sense of ‘free to do stuff with other people instead of stuck at home with the telly on the blink’. So those of us who want to pay more tax owe a debt of thanks to Jerry Cohen. It’s not hypocritical want higher income tax without giving more to charity than the next person. It’s practical. Once again, tax pounds work differently to normal pounds.

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