12 July 2020
Eamonn Butler
Director and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute
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Part 6: Why taxation is dishonest and public spending is divisive
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Politicians should be honest about the amount of tax they charge us. But they are not. Governments always want to spend more money than we would willingly pay. So they turn to ‘stealth’ taxes, in which the full burden of the tax is deliberately concealed.

Rather than raise the ‘headline’ rate of income tax, for example, payment thresholds may be adjusted, or allowed to lag behind inflation, so that more people fall into higher tax brackets. Reliefs and exemptions may be phased out. Hidden charges are imposed. And there are countless other examples. That is dishonest and morally unacceptable.

It is immoral and divisive to levy taxes on particular groups – people with high incomes, say, or who choose to spend more of their money on large houses, expensive cars or other extravagances – out of pure envy. It is wrong to impose tax rates so high as to drive talented people to avoid and evade them, or simply to migrate and create business and employment opportunities in other countries rather than at home.

But all public programs are divisive. In the market place, different people can choose different products. Car buyers, for example, can choose any colour they want, in countless shades: one person’s choice does not preclude another’s. Things are quite different in politics and government, however. Elections and votes in the legislature decide what everyone will have – from the size of the defence force through the frequency of the mail delivery to the quality of the road repairs.

People may have different views on what their tax money should be spent on; but in the political arena there is only one winner. Rather than accommodating diversity in peaceful coexistence, political decisions pitch different people and groups and opinions against each other. The higher the taxes they pay, the more determined people will be that their choices should prevail, and the bitterer becomes the political debate. Such factional rivalry undermines the idea and substance of a moral society.


Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute and author of The Best Book on the Market. He has a PhD in moral philosophy. In his next and last piece in this series, he shows the perverse incentives caused by taxation and the moral harm they produce.

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