In the first of a series of thought pieces considering the philosophical basis of political concepts, grassroots assistant Kieran Neild questions whether a large tax burden can go hand in hand with liberty.
Big government is on the rise in Britain. The tax burden is at its highest for fifty years, with the lowest earning households paying 43 per cent of their income to the tax man in 2017/2018. Taxation makes up 35 per cent of GDP, the highest level since 1969 and Harold Wilson's first premiership.
The budget saw the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announce the largest spending increase for thirty years. Emergency coronavirus measures aside, the government pledged billions in infrastructure like the white elephant project, HS2. One of the most important jobs we have at the Taxpayers’ Alliance is to remind everyone that increased public spending requires increased taxation.. The government's insistence that we can avoid this choice by borrowing more will not hold forever. Taxpayers remember the consequences of borrowing beyond our means and know we will always have to foot the bill down the line. When interest rates inevitably rise and debt cannot be serviced, the government will be back with a begging bowl, demanding more taxpayer money to finance their fiscal irresponsibility.
The basis of our skepticism when it comes to an overbearing state lies within the tenets of liberty and personal freedom. As well as the sheer cost to people's bank balances, we oppose high tax because it results in more government interference. As the state absorbs more of our income, its ability to nanny us in aspects of our personal lives grows.
This view has been expressed by numerous scholars, but to understand the argument we should look back to John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Their contribution still guides much our modern conception of liberty. It is on the principles they laid out that we must stand and fight to lower the tax burden and live independently from state interference.
What is liberty?
Before we can consider tax, we must conceptualise liberty. Liberty is the freedom to live as one chooses without let or hindrance by the state or other authority1. We are of course not in a state of total liberty and, since the origins of civilisation, never have been. However, the degree of the liberty we enjoy can fluctuate. Britons have lived through bouts of liberty-infringing governments throughout our history. Before living memory, we have struggled for religious freedom against the authority of kings. We have fought to reaffirm the principles of the Magna Carta against those who wished to subvert our ancient liberty in the Petition of Right 1628 and the Bill of Rights 1689.2 In more recent times, our governments have imposed perhaps less obvious infringements, such as currency restrictions and three day working weeks on their citizens.
Modern governments may uphold many liberties, but they still pose a threat to plenty of others. High taxation imposed on individuals by the state impacts our economic freedom. An infringement on our economic freedom also incurs a cost on our personal freedom3. Higher taxation increases the remit of the state and its ability to interfere with our lives. Just as Britons in the past have struggled to preserve their liberty, those who wish to preserve it now ought to understand the political theory of Locke and Mill.
The cornerstone of our democracy and legal system lies in the protection and proliferation of property rights. We champion our property owning democracy, respect the rights of property owners and encourage others to own property. Property is not limited to real estate: the money in our pockets and everything else we own also constitutes property.
According to Locke, “Every man hath property in his own person… the labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his”.4
In the Two Treatises of Government, Locke contends that property rights were established by individual labour. In the state of nature, land, animals and fruit that was common to all individuals could be taken as property. Those who laboured to cultivate the land, hunt the animals and forage the fruit could legitimately claim to own that good. Locke defends our rights to own the value of our labour since we, as individuals, own ourselves. If a person builds a wall on their land, they own that wall as they laboured to produce it. Locke acknowledged that the product of our labour is now represented in money since money is not perishable like the goods we often labour for. If we own the value of our labour, the money we receive for that work is exclusively our property.
When the government taxes our income, they are essentially taking a share of our labour without having laboured for it. This is not the same as willingly and without coercion spending our money as we wish. Since we own the value of our labour, we can consent to giving our property away5. Indeed, many of us do donate to charity and spend our money in ways which benefit others. This is legitimate as we have consented to entering into a contract. This is not true with taxation. When our wage slip comes at the end of the month, how many of us rejoice at the government taking such a large share of our income? Many of us despair and would have rather spent much of that money on our own priorities.
With the great burden of the state on our backs, our ability to spend our income on whatever we want is impeded by direct and indirect taxation. We are taxed on our income, on our consumption, on our savings, on our houses and on our televisions sets. We are drained left, right and centre, prohibiting us from spending our hard earned money on the commodities we desire. That is felt particularly hard by the lowest earning households, paying 43 percent of their income to the government.
Locke and others contend that taxation is necessary to defend our property, through funding the armed forces and a legal system. I doubt Locke intended this caveat to extend to HS2 and foreign aid. We of course tacitly consent to taxation by voting at an election, benefiting from education, roads and enjoying protection under the rule of law. It does however raise an important question we taxpayers must ponder: are we content with the level of taxation imposed on us, and if not, why do we continue to consent to higher taxes at the ballot box?
John Stuart Mill
Our economic freedom is only one part of the government's infringement on our liberty. Mill’s conception of personal liberty demonstrates further that in today’s Britain, the state is curtailing our freedom. Our redistributed wealth is often spent on telling us how to live our lives. Whether it is recommended portion sizes by Public Health England, or sin taxes levied on smokers and drinkers, our money is invested in impeding our freedom once again. The nanny state is fed by taxpayers money and in return it churns out restrictions on individual lifestyle choices. Many of the interventions we are subjected to are an affront to our personal liberty under Mill's harm principle:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."6
Liberty is the nature of the limits of power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual7. According to Mill, society may infringe upon our liberty in order to protect the freedom and liberty of others if an action causes harm. The harm principle established by Mill is a measure in which to judge government interference and its acceptability. This principle justifies legitimate state interference to protect against negative externalities, such as preventing a factory from polluting a fishing pond used and owned by a community. However, Britain's governments have gone far beyond this principle and have regularly interfered in unwelcome ways. The modern nanny state exercises power over members of civilised society, paid for them but against their will, to prevent harm not to others but to themselves.
The nanny state has begun to tax our sugar consumption in a failed attempt to reduce obesity and now the government is facing calls to introduce a meat tax to reduce our consumption of red meat. All of this is in the name of ‘improving our lifestyle’. But the harm principle suggests the government has no right to interfere in our ability to choose what food and drink we consume. My intake of a large amount of sugar is unhealthy, but I ought to be at liberty to spend my money on choices that do not harm others. The sugar tax aimed to reduce the purchase power of poorer households to buy cheaper sugary food. This is an economic and personal affront to liberty. Poorer households are now burdened with a higher cost of living all because of a subjective decision on how people should act.
The government’s attempt to nanny us is an affront to our personal liberty. An individual's highest prerogative is to ensure his or her own preservation. The government is not required to decide upon or manipulate our consumption of things deemed unhealthy by a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy. As long as choices do not affect the liberty of others, we ought to be free to make them.
There are clear philosophical underpinnings for our desire to lower taxes. The tax burden is growing and looks set to increase in the coming years. The government is likely to continue interfering in our life choices as it brings more tax into its coffers and spends more and more. But the works of Locke and Mill tell us to respect the right of individuals to keep the value of their labour and make life choices that don't harm others. These principles are fundamental to our freedom, and we would do well to remember them when we think about our level of liberty in Britain.
- Oxford University Press. Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, 2006.
- Pocock, J.G.A. The Ancient Constitution and Feudal Law. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Friedman, M. Free to Choose. Harcourt, 1980
- Locke, J. (Eds by Laslett, P.). Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp.289.
- Locke, J. (Eds by Laslett, P.). Two Treatises of Government.
- Mill, J.S. John Stuart Mill on Liberty. Penguin Classics, 1974, p.64.
- Mill, J.S. John Stuart Mill on Liberty. Penguin Classics, 1974, p.59.