If you wanted lamb chops you wouldn’t go to Holland & Barrett. If you wanted a cheap shirt for work you wouldn’t look down Jermyn Street. And if you wanted a lecture on morality you wouldn’t go to a politician.
But that’s what we got last week in the midst of ‘Carrgate’. On Wednesday, David Cameron branded the comedian’s tax arrangements “morally wrong”. Then, on Thursday, when asked what his thoughts were on the similar tax arrangements of Conservative supporting singer Gary Barlow, Cameron muttered“ I am not going to give a running commentary on different people’s tax affairs. I don’t think that would be right”
On less flip floppy but no firmer ground was Danny Alexander. On that righteous Wednesday he thundered that “people who are deliberately going out of their way to try and bend the rules to avoid tax, are the moral equivalent of the people who cheat the benefit system”
This remark didn’t go unnoticed by singer turned moralist Lily Allen, whose song Fuck You is up there with Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll as one of the great political statements in popular music. “How are tax avoiders ‘the moral equivalent of benefit cheats’ ? . Surely they’re a hundred times worse ?” (sic) she tweeted before calling someone who disagreed a “fascist” – a striking display of idiocy from someone so expensively educated.
’m no fan of Jimmy Carr, although he did once give me directions on Islington’s Upper Street. I don’t find him funny and for a comedian praised for his edginess I’ve always been surprised by how old fashionedly showbiz his TV shows are. Indeed, if you wanted to list your top three Steve Guttenberg movies I’m sure Jimmy Carr would be happy to host a program about it on E4. But has he actually done anything wrong?
Let’s start with Alexander and Allen. There is, in fact, a world of difference between someone acting legally to keep hold of money they earned (tax avoidance) and someone acting illegally to get hold of money someone else earned (benefit fraud). It was precisely this argument that Allen branded “fascist” before saying that “we’re talking morals not legalities”.
This brings us to Cameron’s point. The problem with making tax a moral issue is that taxes have to be, as Adam Smith put it as long ago as 1776, “certain, not arbitrary”. And morality is an arbitrary issue because each of us has their own moral code.
Thus, I find the coalition’s reforms to housing benefit reasonable and long overdue. Polly Toynbee regards them as nothing short of an attempted “final solution for the poor”. Personally, given that our engorged government spends tens of billions of pounds it shouldn’t, I see nothing inherently moral or noble in giving it money you don’t have to. In fact, I view tax avoidance as perfectly moral in the face of a bloated and wasteful government. But that’s me, and you might disagree.
The best way to avoid these sorts of clashes is the old live and let live, maximising the arenas of life in which individual choice is sovereign. However, this is not possible in cases where the actions are of their nature collective, like paying taxes.
But if we are to respect private property, which is not only right morally (in my view) but also from a perspective of increasing all our wealth, then we have to have a tax system in which your earnings can’t be taxed away ‘just because’. At some point we need to move away from morality and towards legality. We are back with Adam Smith.
So we draw up a tax system which all of us know about in advance. You break it, you’re a tax evader. You don’t, you’re good to go. And that is where Jimmy Carr is. Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges put it as well as anyone:
“What precisely has he done that’s immoral? Has Jimmy Carr earned his money legally? Yes. Does he pay tax? Yes. Does he stand accused of tax evasion? No. Has he paid the maximum amount of tax he is legally required to? Yes…We have an obligation to pay our full amount of tax. We don’t have an obligation, legal or moral, to pay more than that. That’s why we have a mandatory tax system, not a system of voluntary charitable contributions to the state.”
So why the outpouring of blather about Carr’s taxes? Allen is just a celebrity dimwit. Alexander is playing to his restive party members. He was at it again this week, saying that“ If we could narrow the tax gap in this country by a quarter we could reduce income tax for every basic rate payer by 2p in the pound” He doesn’t seem to realise that the same effect could be achieved if he just cut spending.
And then there’s Cameron. Never one to let the low hanging fruit go ungrabbed, getting all moralistic about Jimmy Carr probably seemed a great way to try and win a few brownie points with Guardian readers. Predictably, it blew up in his face. When will he learn that he can never, ever, talk enough rubbish to make Guardianistas love him?
This article originally appeared at The Commentator