Are tax-avoiders simply economic conscientious objectors?
From Brother Ivo:
One of the recurring news stories of recent times is the one about this public figure, or that public company, so organising their financial affairs within the law that ensure less or no tax is paid to the Government. The latest subject of this has been Nigel Farage of UKIP.
This has set Brother Ivo thinking about whether the presumptions that underpin such news stories are justified. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that lawful tax avoidance is somehow immoral, and that it is right and proper to shame such persons. At the same time, however, proponents of conscientious objection often insist that it is permissible and admirable for there to be an overt betrayal of specific legal obligation by government servants.
We are apparently invited to subscribe to the idea that if we only pay that tax which is legally required, we are not 'pulling our weight' in civic society. Jesus was not so far-reaching in his teaching, requiring only that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
Of course, Caesar's taxes and plans for their use were significantly less ambitious than those of the modern Whitehall or Brussels bureaucrat whose percentage take from the gross national product exceeds anything the tyrants of Rome ever imagined. We have also become significantly less scrupulous about giving to God the things that are God's.
But it is not only the tax avoider who declines the obligations ordinarily required by the political class of the majority of its subjects.
As the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are bringing to light, there are many, like Russell Brand, who will simultaneously heap scorn on those complying with the law whilst excusing those who overtly betray their contractual and fundamental loyalties to their country.
Brother Ivo is trying to puzzle out whether, within this secular world-view, there is a discernible underlying principle to be found. If not, he must conclude that conscientious objection has become nothing more than an immunity conferred ex post facto upon those approved by an influential political/media class with sufficient power to face down weak governments.
That is not a picture of conscientious objection with which he is comfortable.
Conscientious objection to war has been a long-established and respected status, much beloved by the Left and all those who regard themselves as having loyalty to a higher ideal which negates the call of the state to war service. Its origins lay plainly in a respect for those largely non-conformist religious groups like the Quakers which took seriously the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. Such believers were unconvinced that exceptions could be made, even when presented with carefully thought-through doctrines such as that of the Just War.
When religion was highly regarded, our forebears made an exception for those of conscience because they recognised, with a tolerance born of Protestant individualism, that a man can and should primarily take responsibility for the good of his soul, and if his honest reading of the Bible led him to pacifism, then that must be respected by a God-fearing, individualistic and tolerant state.
We no longer live in that God-fearing, individualistic and tolerant state, which poses the question: 'Is it time for secular Britain to repeal the protection to the conscientious war objector?'
Further, can either Manning or Snowden be protected on a point of principle while simultaneously execrating those who follow precisely the law, but fail to exhibit enthusiasm for offering additional financial support to the state?
Let us, however, begin by considering the position of the much maligned 'under-payer' of tax.
Suppose an individual regards the expansion of the state's share of the national output as wrong in principle: imagine they believe that they can do more good in allocating resources to the needy. Allow the possibility that such a taxpayer further takes the view that nations may prosper up to a point where government expenditure reaches around 37% of GDP, but thereafter there is a correlation between exceeding that percentage, and economic decline.
Surely, given that clear mindset and desire to see his/her country prosper, such a taxpayer is not only reasonable, but thoroughly moral in refusing to pass away control of wealth that he/she believes is better retained within the free choices, control, and perhaps less wasteful ambit of the private citizen's decisions.
In this scenario, our hypothetical subject is certainly not a malevolent evader to be censored, but an 'economic conscientious objector', actively pursuing what he/she genuinely regards as the promotion of the public good. They may be moving against the cultural mainstream, but so, then, is the war resister or the self-appointed leaker of secrets.
There is an interesting difference between such an economic objector, and the pacifist or leaker. The economic objector is fulfilling his/her civic obligations fully to the letter of the law. He/she seeks no extension of immunity under the law; only that there be no complaint that he/she should do more than is required after due legislative process. They render to Caesar as Caesar requires, but do not wish to send him an undeserved bonus. The conscientious war objector/leaker is rather less egalitarian, for he/she is deliberately doing less than his/her fellow subjects who, moreover, may even give their lives to protect and preserve the objector's claimed privileged position.
Lest readers think the idea of the economic conscientious objector is entirely a figment of Brother Ivo's imagination, consider the position of the Amish Community in the USA. They conscientiously reject all participation in the state and its apparatus. They make no claims on the wider community and accordingly have been granted the right, based upon their cultural and religious beliefs, to pay no tax. They have become a self-reliant, industrious and well-regarded group adjacent to society. Their presence is by no means unproductive or malign.
It is doubtful that many in 'modern', 'progressive' Britain would be as generous in spirit towards such a section of society. Equality of sacrifice would be demanded: we have already seen freedom of conscience trampled underfoot in the case of those conscientiously opposed to conducting same-sex civil unions. More examples are likely to follow.
As the equality agenda appears to be increasingly asserted, shall we not inexorably and logically reach the point where conscientious objection to war must rationally be seen as 'outdated', founded, as it is, upon a religious premise that the 'modernisers' laughingly reject?
If the 'economic conscientious objector' is not to be valued and respected for his/her lawful challenge to the opinions and priorities of government, why should the war resister, the contract breaker, the ignorer of oaths, be allowed to shirk his/her societal responsibility?
If we approve or disapprove of such controversial figures as Manning or Snowden based purely upon our notion of approval or disapproval, we have left the realm of principle and entered that of the populist.
Christians will know that Barabbas will always have his supporters.
When conscientious objection was founded and accepted within its original religious context, even those who profoundly disagreed with the objection could acknowledge and respect the status. At present, we seem to have the Big Brother approach to such matters: a 'conscientious objector' may be nothing more than a traitor with good PR and a celebrity following.
Brother Ivo is not terribly interested, for these purposes, on the detailed political merits of the Manning or Snowden cases: he is trying to understand the underlying principles asserted once one departs from the clarity previously present when conscientious objection was rooted in its original religious context.
There needs to be some objective reasoning in these matters. When a Quaker, Buddhist or Amish claimed immunity from war service, one could, with a fair degree of certainty, recognise that attachment to principle with some confidence. In a post-religious world, that becomes much less identifiable.
Unless the secular philosopher can address this problem, he/she runs the risk of losing all claim to principle, leading to the position whereby allowing such a conscientious anachronism to continue is contrary to the notions equality and fairness to which we are all now required to subscribe as the highest priority. And that would never do, would it?
(Posted by Brother Ivo)