Over at The Guardian Julian Baggini has an attempt at denouncing our favoured little concept of Tax Freedom Day. As ever with economic logic in The Guardian the wheels rather come off his argument. For he makes the incorrect conceptual leap from insisting that the things government provides are just great to the insistence that therefore tax is great. Nope, no, and really, just no.
It is impossible to get either accounting or economics correct if you fail to distinguish between a cost and a benefit. Thus we must indeed distinguish between costs and benefits:
No one is celebrating such a social solidarity day yet. However, for several years the Adam Smith Institute and the Taxpayers Alliance have been advocating something they call tax freedom day, which fell this year on 3 June. They tout this as “the first day of the year that you start earning money for yourself”, since on average all we earn for 154 days of the year we pay in taxes.
Social solidarity day and tax freedom day are of course two ways of looking at exactly the same objective phenomenon: that on average, 154 calender days earnings are taxed. The meaning of this fact, however, is changed by how we frame it. For economic libertarians, taxation is a deprivation of what is ours by natural right. For those who favour a welfare state, taxation is (or at least should be) a fair payment towards a well-functioning, just society that protects the weak as well as the strong.
Tax freedom day has been an effective rhetorical tool for advancing the tax-as-theft worldview. It is now as politically difficult to speak positively of tax as it is easy to praise the things we spend these taxes on, as though we can be in favour of the NHS while being against what funds it.
We're sure that there will be disagreements between Mr. Baggini and ourselves on what are the lovely parts of government and what aren't the lovely parts of government. Even on how we might gain more of the lovely parts without having to put up with the rest of the dross.
But it is still absolutely essential to insist upon that distinction. The benefits of government are indeed a benefit. Tax is the cost we must pay to gain those benefits. Tax is not, in and of itself, a benefit - it's on the other side of our calculation, the other page in the ledger.
We could, of course, just dismiss this as a matter of emphasis, possibly as each side deploying the appropriate rhetoric to support their favoured argument. But sadly this is very much more important than that. We do in fact want the maximum of those good things from collective spending while doing the minimum of that tax raising to fund collective endeavours. Thus we want to minimise the tax bill for whatever it is that we are getting.
Yes, this includes everything - whether you favour military spending, the NHS, education, whatever, we still want to get the maximum bang for our buck, the most people cured for the least money, the most snotnoses taught to reed n'rite for the least picked from our wallets. That is, it is only by viewing tax as a cost that we can possibly hope to gain any efficiency in the manner in which it is spent.
Rather than Baggini's view, which seems to be that the more money we burn as votive offerings to the State the more we will be demonstrating our reverence for said state. At which point we do have to point out that we are Enlightenment liberals, who do believe in the separation of Church and State - whether that means organised God type religion or the religion of the State itself.