Belgium: land of high tax morale

So I’ve talked about why some (very rich) people will do anything to avoid tax. No really, I have; it’s in an earlier post. Here’s a different question. Why do many people who could avoid it pay their tax anyway?

If you’re lazy, like me, the obvious answer is, ‘They can’t face the hassle’ (forms, accountants, getting it wrong and having Tax Collectors with guns and bullet proof vests raid your home).

Obvious, but wrong. Some  people – and countries – have high ‘tax morale’. And what are these people and countries like? Research suggests that they ‘trust in the legal system, government and parliament’. They have ‘national pride’ and ‘pro-democratic attitudes’.

They sound great these people. The ones in the study came from Switzerland, Spain and Belgium; maybe they could come and do some Tax Morale life coaching over here. But here’s a scary thought. What if the relationship between tax morale and trust, pride and democracy can ratchet down as well as up. Maybe people who don’t trust their government, who feel that democracy’s not working for them, are unwilling to pay more tax. Which means the government can’t do its job well. Which means people are less likely to trust the government etc etc.

If that’s so, then it would obviously be mad for a political party or government to go on about how governments are inevitably hopeless and untrustworthy. ‘Don’t be silly,’ I hear someone heckle. ‘No one would do that’.

Nonetheless, since the 1980s, right wing politicians in the UK have persistently argued that ‘you can’t trust governments with money, so we’ll cut taxes’. And to reinforce just how much they dislike government, they have characterise the voters and governments as consumers and service providers.

Market models work really well for lots of things: cars, bread, energy companies (oh, wait). But sometimes they come at a price. The philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that turning some good things – enjoying the countryside, supporting your local sports teams – into products for sale turns them into a different thing altogether. While your walk in the country is paid for by taxes, because it’s in, say, a national park, then it’s nature’s bounty, free to all. But if you buy it as a consumer, it turns into a treat that you’ve earned, something you have a right to and others don’t, something that can leave you feeling cheated if it doesn’t work out as planned.

After thirty years of undermining the idea of governments as agents for good, and turning taxes into fees for services, we need to start the virtuous circle of tax morale and trust and pride in government turning again. Lets stop talking about governments as inevitably lazy, incompetent and greedy. Change government so we’re all more involved. Pay more taxes and see what this invigorated government can do.

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