The conference season started in a predictable fashion yesterday when Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, claimed that the “super-rich” should pay more tax. In particular, he pointed to the non-domicile loop-hole as an effective tax break worth £4 billion a year, whose closing would generate revenue to tackle child poverty and various associated social malaises.
That the TUC General Secretary should demand higher taxes on the rich and greater redistribution is hardly earth shattering news, yet the fact that the simplistic relationship between tax and revenue, and government spending and social wellbeing that his argument depends on should be so blithely accepted is what really grates.
Undoubtedly our tax system is riddled with loop holes and exceptions which the army of lawyers and accountants that the rich employ are able to exploit. That is why the Taxpayers’ Alliance is in favour of flatter and simpler taxes which minimise both the incentive and opportunity for tax avoidance. However, the idea that child poverty can be tackled simply by throwing more money at the problem is pathetically lazy thinking. To start with, the idea of child poverty tends to be a fairly vacuous concept when thrown around in the political arena, who after all can argue against measures for “tackling child poverty”? Yet the poverty talked of tends to be an incredibly amorphous concept - not only is there talk of material poverty, but also of opportunity, of aspiration, and even love. It is clearly incredibly difficult to measure let alone tackle many of these types of poverty, or even decide the demarcation point of poverty. In short, whilst easy to make positive sounding noises, child poverty is not an issue easily tackled by the blunt bureaucratic instruments of the State.
Indeed, it has often been the attempt of politicians to “do-something”, but ensure at the same time that that “something” flatters their commitment to completely discredited ideologies. For example, it is the welfare dependence that has done so much to breed a culture of joblessness and low aspirations. It is a top-down system of comprehensive education that has helped to destroy a flexible education system. It is ultimately the patronising attitude that the State, and more specifically Whitehall knows what is best for each individual community, that homogenous standards must be imposed with little or no room for innovation.
The poor cannot be lifted up by pulling down the rich, instead individuals and communities must be set free to lift themselves up. Our tax and benefit system which currently acts as a crippling disincentive to work must be reformed by cuts in tax at the very bottom of the income ladder. Schools must be allowed to tailor their own curriculum and parents to chose between these diverse schools so unleashing the benign forces of competition. Local communities must be given more power over their police force and other services. People must take responsibility for themselves and feel they have a stake in their own local community and this can only occur if the stifling hand of the State is removed.
The solution to child poverty then is to remember Reverend William Boetcker’s 10 Cannots, particularly these four:
• You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
• You cannot help little men by tearing down big men.
• You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
• You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.