It’s time for us to re-learn what children do naturally – sharing what we have with those around us – and abandon our aversion to tax, write Dr Niki Harre and Philip McKibbin
Not raising taxes has become a key election strategy for New Zealand’s two biggest political parties. Labour has said it will raise taxes for higher income-earners – but its messaging to the majority is, “We won’t raise your taxes.” National is promising temporary tax cuts.
It is as if tax is shameful, something we’d all be better off without. Even the word ‘tax’ has negative connotations – when we describe something as ‘taxing’, we generally mean that it is burdensome or demanding. Yet without tax, many public goods, like roads, libraries, and hospital care, would be unaffordable for most of us; and other services, such as state-funded housing, unemployment benefits, and our nationwide response to Covid-19, would not exist at all. Low levels of tax leave our collective resources depleted or require government spending by which we borrow from the future in order to meet today’s needs.
Politics can be understood as a way of looking after each other. The politics of love promotes values such as care, responsibility, and trust. These values, which all of us recognise are important, can guide action and inform policy. Sharing is one of these values – and taxes are a form of sharing.
It is generally assumed that a significant rise in taxes would be rejected by voters, but sharing appears to be in our nature. We have a strong sense of fairness, and even young children recognise that everyone who has contributed to a project should get a reasonable share of any rewards.
Earlier this year, one of us – Niki – asked three volunteers in a university lecture to come to the front and solve a collective problem. Once they had done so, she handed three chocolates to the volunteer closest to her. The student immediately offered the chocolates to her teammates who took one each. This gesture suggests that the student not only had an impulse to share the chocolates, but she assumed it was her duty to do so. She seemed to recognise that the chocolates were never hers to keep, she had simply been given the responsibility to distribute them appropriately.
Sharing, then, is easy – we often do it without thinking. The notion of ‘private wealth’ can be thought of as the mistaken assumption that what an individual produces is entirely her own. This ignores the fact that we produce in a social context using resources we are unable to fashion ourselves – like soil, or pens. Also, the skills we use were mostly given to us by others. For example, your job likely requires at least a little reading, a skill you probably acquired through publicly-funded education. Tax is the recognition that what is produced collectively should be shared collectively. From this perspective, it is an accident if someone ends up with excess money; it obviously needs to be redistributed.
And yet, many of our politicians seem determined to convince us otherwise. Recently, Act Party candidate Simon Court said, “What we’re hearing from the Labour and the Greens Party is that your money is actually their money.” National Party leader Judith Collins repeated this mistake a few days later when she said of her opponents in the Labour Party, “I don’t think for a moment that these people know how many cents there are in a dollar. Except they do know that your dollar should be their dollar.”
We have become so used to the idea of individual ownership (my land, my possessions, my money, and so on) that we seem to have forgotten this is only one way to organise ourselves – and an unusual one at that. In many cultures, including Māori cultures, and in most families, almost all the resources needed for life are ‘ours’. Imagine if, just as the student assumed the chocolates she had been given were for all three volunteers, we saw all resources as ‘on loan’, goods that may have ended up with you or me, but belong to us all.
Covid-19 has brought with it a great deal of hardship, with the Government describing the increased demand for unemployment benefits as “unprecedented in modern history”. Surely, one of our highest priorities right now should be finding innovative ways of sharing our resources so that all of us have everything we need. Instead, politicians are offering timid proposals or appealing to the false notion that tax is a form of theft. At the same time, opinion writers are arguing that New Zealand should take on more national debt (potentially constraining future decisions), while other commentators suggest that individuals should be left to look after themselves by making early withdrawals from their KiwiSaver funds or mortgaging their homes. We believe a fairer solution is to share what we have. This would be more sustainable, too, as we would be living within our collective means.
What if we saw Covid-19’s impact on the economy, which has led to some individuals and businesses becoming richer and some becoming poorer, as a temporary imbalance that needs correction? Those of us who have gained financially from the change to ‘business as usual’ would return that money, through tax, to the community; it would then be shared with those who are struggling, through benefits, skills training, and other forms of support.
We must abandon our aversion to tax. We need to re-learn what children do naturally – sharing what we have with those around us.
Dr Harré is the author of Psychology for a Better World and The Infinite Game; Philip McKibbin is the author of Love Notes: for a Politics of Love