How high taxes killed our belief in helping others

Posted on January 08, 2013

When all factual and economic arguments have failed, Britain’s proponents of high taxes fall back upon philosophical justifications for their position. “Tax is the thing that makes us civilised”, they declare, “It brings us together as a society”.

Such arguments are dragged out to perform again and again, like those 1960s pop acts who were fleeced of their retirement pots by unscrupulous managers. Of course, there’s no actual evidence for them – that’s the point, they are declarations of conveniently unmeasurable truths.

But even such intangible claims are starting to look shaky. As the debate about cutting benefits for the better off intensifies, it is increasingly clear that high taxation has killed our national sense of helping others, of the well to do making sacrifices to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Just look at the row over Child Benefit. There was a time when people recognised that if they earned a good salary, they didn’t really need welfare to top up their income – whereas others who were barely getting by did.

Now, the letters pages and radio phone ins communicate a very different world view. Those who have been squeezed over and over again by successive Chancellors grabbing at their earnings, their savings, their pensions, their petrol bills and their pasties want something back in return. The idea that just because they might be earning £50,000 a year then they shouldn’t get Child Benefit enrages large numbers of people – the payment is one of the few things they get back from the large amounts they have to pay to the Exchequer.

That is a remarkable shift from the widespread sense of “middle class oblige” that once existed to the far less attractive sight of well-heeled parents defending their right to be welfare recipients.

But people who want to hang onto their payments cannot be blamed for feeling that way. It’s a natural reaction to want to get at least a bit back when you are shelling out a small fortune every year through constant, multiple taxation. It is our politicians, and particularly the high tax lobby, who are responsible for the near-total erosion of that sense of sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course it is an absurdity to pay welfare benefits to the well-off. It is a perverse interpretation of a welfare state that was intended as a safety net – particularly at a time when there are plenty of families who can only dream of earning £50,000 a year. Worse, it means cycling cash through a wasteful tax collection and benefits payment system, only to return some of it to the pocket where it originated.

The welfare bill must be brought down, and the just way to do that is to withdraw benefits from those who need them least. High taxation has driven out the sense of responsibility which would once have made that the obvious and natural thing to do for most Britons. Far from making us “civilised” or “bringing us together”, overfeeding the tax man has made us selfish. Taking more and more money from workers has made them grip what they have left all the tighter.

The moral case against high taxes must be made or – counter-intuitive as it may seem – the moral case for helping others will continue to fall on deaf ears.