Opinion: These days new crises aren’t patiently waiting in line for us to be done with the last one. We imagine our ancestors in the 1930s and 1940s putting other worries aside as they got busy beating fascism. Today we’re supposed to be addressing climate change as we worry about automation taking our jobs and hoping we can avoid World War III. There’s a lot on our collective plate.  

In generally statesman-like speeches, National Leader Christopher Luxon charts a way forward. He offers a government “with a big heart, a big view and a big determination to ensure that New Zealanders do better and get ahead”. To use Donald Trump’s term, Luxon wants to do things bigly. His biglyness comes with a backing vocal of tax cuts. “Under Labour, success is something to tax. Under National, success is something to celebrate.” 

* Budget 2023: Climate fund slashed by $800m
* Cabinet overrides Shaw and Commission on carbon price
* A disappointing Budget for the climate

This is no analysis of tax policy. An academic philosopher is the last person you should be asking about Aotearoa’s ideal mix of direct and indirect taxes. I’m interested in the mindset behind Luxon’s offer of tax cuts. 

You may think we don’t have to choose between Luxon’s alternatives. Can’t we celebrate the successes of talented Kiwis at the same time as hoping they offer more to the public purse during a time of emergency? 

Why is it that a response in which the wealthiest are taxed more to beat climate change seems so hard to imagine?  

This seems to have been the way we addressed earlier crises. According to the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, though New Zealand’s participation in World War I was largely supported by borrowing, our collective effort in WWII was achieved with higher taxes. We sustained high taxes during the war without turning communist. Couldn’t that approach power our response to our current crises?

Here’s an imaginative exercise to better understand the collective resolve of our ancestors. How might things have gone had we looked to the ideology of tax cuts to defeat fascism? To juice the story up I’ve shifted back in time some of the social media technologies that today bedevil everything politicians try to do.             

Twin Earth 1939

The rise of fascism has triggered conflict in Europe. Europe’s free nations call on us to help. New Zealand’s PM keenly understands the magnitude of the challenge. Will a Nazi Europe buy our lamb?

The Prime Minister signals his commitment to the cause of democracy by far-sightedly calling for tax cuts. Government is not the answer! The PM points to a legacy of wasted government expenditures on the military – leaky warships and expensive bombs that don’t actually blow up. Government can lead the effort. But tax cuts will direct capital to the private sector, whose brilliant minds seek market solutions to fascism.  

There are encouraging historical precedents. In the European wars of the 12th and 14th centuries much of the fighting was done by free companies, bands of mercenaries recruited by private employers. The view that Hitler needs beating is shared by many New Zealanders. Money liberated by tax cuts allows the creation of the Kiwi Free Companies (KFC). The soldiers who go off to fight fascism are enticed by the promise of booty from the cities they free. It’s a good deal for the French too. They get liberation from fascism and have only to part with a few art works from the Louvre and other treasures released onto a flourishing secondary market in European art and antiquities.  

Recruitment efforts are powered by an effective social media campaign. “Let’s Beat Hitler” trends on Facebook. Horrific YouTube Shorts of Hitler’s invasion of Poland prompt massive enlistments in the KFC. Coverage of New Zealand Free Company deaths prompts predictable responses. “The Führer is Our Friend” also trends, accumulating 100,000 “likes” and many retweets. 

 Aotearoa joins other democratic nations in combating the misinformation on 1940s social media. In New Zealand this is set back by the release of video footage of the PM picking … and eating … his nose. It turns out that this realistic footage was deep faked and spread by ingenious Nazi hackers. But mainly … eww! Members of the Free Companies rightly demand increased profit shares to compensate them for this groady association. 

Our unimaginable recent ancestors

Might this have been a way to beat Hitler? I don’t know. But it’s not the way we chose to do it. Why is it that a response in which the wealthiest are taxed more to beat climate change seems so hard to imagine?  

Tax cuts as a solution to our biggest problems conform to a pattern described by the Stanford historian Walter Scheidel in his 2017 book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Scheidel cites extensive data charting a seemly inexorable rise in inequality. To summarise: the rich get richer, the poor get f**ked, incrementally. The only corrections of this pattern are catastrophes such as mass mobilisation warfare, the collapse of states, and pandemics much worse than Covid-19. World War II narrowed the gap between rich and poor. Will climate change be a catastrophe of sufficient magnitude to have this effect too?

Probably a National government that introduces tax cuts will respond to the challenge of climate change by borrowing. If voters don’t want to pay now then why not pass the costs on to the following generations? I just hope our kids have paid off their student loans before they have to shoulder the burden of my generation’s climate debts.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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