Arguably, the greatest contribution to society of a liberal education is perspective. ‘Dah da dah da dah. DISCUSS’ was the way it went when I was at school, as opposed to the ‘A, B, C, D, E. Tick one’ of the modern era. Today, July 14, is only significant to the vast majority of the world’s population for being the day after July 13 and the day before July 15. In France, it is a national holiday. Back in 1989, the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille, it was Oxford educated Margaret Thatcher who pointed out in an interview with Le Monde that: ‘ ”human rights did not start with the French Revolution,” a perspective the French were not prepared for. Fortunately for the Iron Lady, she was guillotined by her own Government the following year, before the furious French could get their act together. Earlier today, the massively anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ hit the bookstores. The fictional superhero of my youth ( along with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne), Atticus Finch, now turns out – in his author’s eyes – to have been a bigot. We all missed that one.
So, with the gradual movement from education to knowledge cramming, it is perhaps no surprise that the entire tax world is out on a fanatically dogmatic witchhunt, not even stopping to breathe and get the whole thing in perspective. And it is embarrassing.
I refer, of course, to the twin tax bugbears of western society, BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information. Europe (did somebody whisper OECD?) has decided that American (did someone say ‘foreign’) companies pay scandalously and imorally little tax in their jurisdictions, and the world’s leading economies (did someone shout ‘the entire world’?) are singlemindedly trying to sort this out (with a constant look over their shoulders to check if the Americans are going to throw a wobbler and crush the whole thing). Meanwhile, thanks to the Americans (who feel that – far from taking too much tax away from the Europeans – their taxpayers are hiding their income there), everybody is trying to make sure that their tax residents declare all their ill-gotten gains.
Dogma rules. If this can be sorted out, we are told, the world will be a fairer place. Perhaps. But there are two small issues here that should have been factored in. Firstly, it is by no means clear that companies should pay tax. While Shylock could ask, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ joint-stock companies, like Pinocchio, do not have the same luxury. Companies are a legal fiction – the Walt Disney of the business world. As they do not have feelings (an accusation often aimed at me), they cannot suffer taxation. Taxation is paid by flesh and blood people – it is the customers who pay higher prices , the shareholders who make lower profits, and the employees who receive lower income. The company just sails on regardless – and, if it dies, does not even warrant a marked grave. There has always, therefore, been a strong movement to abolish company taxes in favour of taxes on individuals – income tax, withholding tax, value added tax. Company taxes, it is argued, distort economic performance.
Secondly, while the search for the hidden treasures abroad of individuals is highly laudable, white man speaks with forked tongue. The latest example of Orwellian Doublespeak is last week’s British budget where non-domicile status (institutionalized tax avoidance) was, with much fanfare, marginally tweaked. Rich foreigners will still be able to enjoy the English weather for substantial periods.
While BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information are undoubtedly an improvement on the international tax scene that has been around until now, they are not a Utopian goal resulting from deep thought and discussion. They are the result of an ‘I want’ philosophy of the electorates of the world’s leading nations. The elimination of company tax is controversial and may be totally impractical, but it, and other ideas including a simple move to regressive VAT as the main source of revenue, should have been part of the debate that never came. Instead, the new world tax order – like so much else in the modern world – is being led by populism. And populism – thanks to a biased, disingenuous and largely ignorant press – is becoming increasingly dogmatic. Look what happened to the French in the 1790s.