It is often argued that taxation to promote the position of the poor is somehow a moral act on behalf of those that are better off and paying taxes to finance the transfers to those who are worse off. It is not.
It is not an intrinsically moral act for the same reason that, if I go out this evening with the intention of beating up my brother and I am stopped from doing so because he is with two muscly friends, I have not committed an act of moral restraint. If I am put in prison for not paying taxes, I have not committed a moral act as a result of paying those taxes. There is no moral equivalence between paying taxes because you have to and the self-sacrifice that comes with philanthropy. Indeed, taxation can exhaust our ability to make moral choices to help our families, our neighbours and society more widely.
The moral problems that people often feel exist with a free and prosperous economy such as selfishness and an individualistic mindset are no less inherently present in an economy with high taxes. Self-interest can be every bit as present in the political system as it is amongst individuals. The idea that we have two natures – a selfish one in the private sphere but a better, more refined, less self-interested nature that is present in the public sphere has no justification in moral philosophy or empirical evidence. After all, when did you ever see a demonstration in a town calling for the local hospital to be closed down so that the neighbouring town could have more resources? Indeed, the zero-sum-game nature of public sector activity promotes selfishness and conflict – witness the lengths people go to in order to obtain places in good state schools, including fraud. In the private sphere, co-operation and providing something of value to customers tend to be rewarded.
The moral limits of taxation
So, there is no credible moral case for a high tax economy. But we can go further. Ultimately, taxation is an issue of how we view property rights. As Pope Leo XIII noted, property (the money that we have) is just wages in another form. To take another person’s property through taxation is to deprive a person of his justly earned wages.
Of course, the state does need resources and it is legitimate to tax people’s earnings in relation to their ability to pay in order to provide those things that are needed for the protection of society as a whole (defence, police etc.). It is also legitimate to tax people to ensure that all in society can have the resources to live in dignity if they are not provided by charity (through the provision of housing, food, healthcare etc.) – though these things do not need to be provided directly by the state.
This might justify taxation of between 5 and 20 per cent of national income – nothing like the 46 per cent of national income that the state spends in the UK today.
In many practical ways, our tax system is morally problematic. It discriminates against family formation – with results that we see very clearly and, of course, it discourages work. A tax system that undermines family and work cannot be thought of as moral.
And, of course, when the state is spending nearly half of national income, there can be no general agreement about the morality of the things on which it spends money. In spending over 46 per cent of national income, the state finances all sorts of other things with my money that I think are morally wrong – and probably different things that you think are morally wrong.
A tax system in a nation of 65 million people, mediated by a huge bureaucracy controlled by a government called to account in elections every five years, cannot possibly replicate the true personal human compassion and philanthropy that is necessary if we are to provide the poor with genuine help. The individual, in this context, becomes a small cog in a giant wheel whose right of initiative has, in large part, been taken away and who has been encouraged to delegate his genuine societal responsibilities to those in need to the state. As Pope Benedict has said: solidarity is the responsibility of everyone to everyone and it cannot be delegated to the state.
This does not mean that the state should not provide for the poor. However, a low tax economy is conducive to social co-operation, individual initiative, the flourishing of families and high levels of employment. Furthermore, it is also conducive to the genuine voluntary assistance that the better off must give to those who need it. Society is not more moral when we discharge our responsibilities to those in need by voting for a party that will form a government that will manage a bureaucracy that takes money from one group of people to give to another group of people with neither group ever meeting each other.
Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. He is also an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics (CEME).
Poor old Google. Well, not so poor actually. According to their SEC 10-K filing group profits amounted, in 2014, to $17.26bn. Google’s UK sales (mainly internet advertising), based upon the billing address of customers, were around $6.5bn in 2014. Lots of sales, but, apparently no profits. Google themselves told the Public Accounts Committee in 2012 that they don’t actually make UK sales. Of course, that is true. To suggest otherwise, might imply a permanent residence for tax purposes and trigger all sorts of consequences – such as paying more Corporation Tax. There are, though, sales from a Dublin registered company to people in the UK. The basic corporate tax rate in Ireland is 12.5%, in the UK 20% and in the US, 35%! So, Ireland get the business. If I buy a product from an American company or an Irish company then the sales and profits are generally accounted for in the country of origin. A British company selling in the US would account for and pay tax on the transaction in the UK. Well, that’s the easy bit. It gets much more complicated when subsidiaries are involved and there are transactions between them…as we will see.
So, what’s the problem?
Mind you, for a Professor of Accounting, Prem Sikka, seems rather naïve. He estimated that rather than the £130m settlement Google reached with HMRC the figure should have been nearer £1.8bn. I have no idea if he has the right figure. And neither does he. HMRC said that they collect the full amount of tax due on profits and no less.
Why the discrepancy?
Before, rushing to judgement (John McDonnell described the payments as ‘derisory’), let’s try and be objective.
Most of its corporate taxes are paid in the US (approximately $2.5bn in 2014). The company also pays corporate tax – at a lower level ($0.8bn) – in Ireland. Google also pays a lot of tax in the UK and collects even more on behalf of the government. Google has around 2,400 employees in the UK (though I cannot confirm the exact figure). Let’s assume that the average salary approximates to that of the Top 100 companies in the UK, namely, £31,929. So that is an annual tax bill of, say, £7.9m per annum in National Insurance Contributions (NIC for employers is 13.8% for all remuneration above £8,160). Not to mention business rates and all the taxes on consumption and irrecoverable VAT the company incurred. It might be that the tax burden on Google and other companies should be higher. Or not. But we must remember the total tax bill that companies face, not just Corporation Tax.
It’s odd how tax campaigners always seem to know how much tax companies should pay. It is a very strange morality. Google can be forgiven for, perhaps wrongly believing that the taxes they are due to pay should be determined by the rule of law, the tax provisions set in Parliament. We do not know what Google’s UK profits are, should be, or should not be, unless there are some rules to determine the calculations.
George Osbourne introduced the Diverted Profits Tax in order to deal with large multi-nationals potentially diverting profits. Google, we are told, would not have been caught. I read the Diverted Profits Tax legislation. Like the rest of the tax code it is not straightforward, complex and requires interpretation to determine whether a company is caught by its provisions or not. This was a simple reminder of the complexity of the tax code, a point quite simply overlooked by many campaigners. Elections, claims and, indeed, judgements are invariably required.
Parliament has the ultimate responsibility to legislate. There are ways in which the tax provisions could be simplified. However, we are naïve in the extreme if we think it is straightforward to enact a national tax regime for multi-national companies. Even multi-nationals need to be protected from double taxation (the same income taxed twice in different places) and there are many provisions to prevent cost and value shifting. Indeed, there are moral issues about depriving Ireland (say) of its tax revenue from Google, when they have been attracted there by a transparent and public lower rate of tax. If a UK subsidiary pays a US parent (or a Bermudan subsidiary) for the use of the brand, what is a fair price?
We do not know the actual, precise amount of tax liability, if any, in dispute between Google and HMRC. It is possible that Google and their advisors believe this to be Y and HMRC believe it to be 4Y. So, HMRC could seek to impose 4Y. And Google could stand firm on the grounds that their interpretation of the law produces Y. HMRC could go to court. They might win. They might lose. It will cost millions of pounds in direct costs and even more in opportunity cost. So, a deal is done at 2Y. Except it is not a deal, but an agreement that 2Y is the amount of tax that is due.
So, we should not join with the so-called tax justice campaigners who display a false morality about tax. The campaigners seem to think that they should be the arbiters of Google’s and other companies tax liabilities. I prefer the law to determine the liability.
And yet, my sympathy for Google is limited.
First, let’s spell out the roots of the accounting problem.
The core of the issue lies in what sales and what costs should be booked in the UK. Only then can the level of profits be determined and appropriately taxed.
If I buy a product from the US, the income and costs will be recorded by that company in the US. If that US company sells so much in the UK that they set up a subsidiary to sell those products here then the sales and costs will be accounted for and taxed in the UK (with relief given in the US for double taxation).
Problem 1. Google (and others similarly) do not officially ‘reside’ in the UK, but Dublin, or Bermuda, the Netherlands or Switzerland, where depending on the precise corporate structure corporate tax rates are lower.
Problem 2. Google sell internet advertising, but almost certainly there will be payments between subsidiaries which have the effect of transferring costs and revenues. So for example, London may charge Dublin for, say, ‘sales and marketing services’ so that the income in Google UK more closely matches it costs (employees, rent etc), and hence reducing the profits in Dublin which are then subjected to the (lower) rate of corporate tax. It also seems likely that a subsidiary in Bermuda (even lower tax) makes charges to Ireland for the use of intellectual property. There are existing rules about ‘transfer pricing’ (effectively it must be an ‘arms-length’ transaction) but what precisely would be a fair or reasonable price?.
Other issues might involve inter-company loans, charges for use of the brand and (probably not in Google’s case) payment for raw materials. The pricing of these transactions is complex and can generate very different outcomes.
In essence a low corporate tax regime should encourage investment, employment and transparency. Google should not be targeted or demonised for meeting its obligations, nor HMRC for agreeing past and (more importantly) future arrangements.
Yet, at the same time, Google is being disingenuous. There is, without doubt, substantial economic activity in the UK by Google and it is not unreasonable for a corporate tax liability to arise. The OECD is encouraging national governments to change the tax arrangements of multi-nationals so as to reflect this economic activity. In reality this cannot be achieved by individual nations.
So, the deal with HMRC is central. Confidentiality in taxpayer affairs quite reasonably prevents disclosure of the arrangements for the past. However, assuming HMRC will seek to apply consistent principles to others for the future payment of tax, it is not unreasonable to disclose those principles. It is not good enough for Google to say they will book more sales to the UK (perhaps more costs too, so there will still be no profits) nor for HMRC to hide behind confidentiality when what is needed is not details about an individual company, but details of the principles which will be adopted going forward.
Google should not be demonised. They pay a lot of tax and arrange their affairs accordingly and legally. However, it is reasonable for there to be a tax regime which does bear some relationship to economic activity. What that regime is to be, we should be told.
And, maybe, just maybe, what is at fault is the whole approach to corporate taxation. To introduce a new tax allowance or restriction is easier than to remove one – long-term consequence, less certainty and more complexity in the tax code. If a company employs more people due to it competitive advantage there are tax gains for government, economic growth, more employment and so on. Maybe we should abolish Corporation Tax and all its associated reliefs and allowances. Make the profits, invest the profits, remove the profits (duly taxed as income in the hands of the recipient), improve employment, pay and so on. Just a thought.
Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.
Is the purpose of taxation payment for common services (defence, health, welfare) or a tool for the redistribution of wealth? That decision, and the balance between them, is a political one. However, there is nothing intrinsically moral about either high or progressive taxation. First, higher rates of taxation may not raise more revenue (the argument would be about the precise positioning on the Laffer Curve). Second, an extra pound raised for the government means a pound less at the disposal of individuals and families or for philanthropic activities. There is no greater morality attached to a government pound than a pound used in support of family life or philanthropic cause. If such spending encourages enterprise, reduces reliance on the state and achieves social purposes effectively and efficiently, then the moral imperative is to reduce taxation.
What about the collection of the tax that is due? There is an absolute moral obligation to comply with the rule of law (in a free, democratic society) including the payment of tax. How much tax should a person pay? Answer – the amount determined by the laws established by the legislature. The UK tax code is complex and lengthy with numerous provisions, allowances, schemes, exemptions, compliance requirements, elections and claims to be made. An individual or corporation who complies with these requirements cannot be said in any way to be acting either illegally or immorally. If Parliament wishes to change the tax legislation then that is precisely what they must do. Legislators legislate. Politicians should be very wary indeed of criticising those who comply with what they have passed into law.
Are there any limits? Yes, there are. It has been long established that artificial transactions or structures with the sole purpose of avoiding tax are irresponsible. HMRC possesses considerable powers to deal with such transactions. Indeed, given that, we should be wary of giving more powers to the tax authorities to pursue taxpayers complying with their legal obligations. High taxation and progressive taxation are not intrinsically moral. There is a balance in society between the rights of individuals to plan their affairs to minimise their tax liabilities, the laws passed by the legislature and the powers of the executive arm (HMRC) to enforce. The current rather sanctimonious debate around taxation has the danger of destabilising this balance by increasing the power of the executive, getting the legislature off the hook for lack of clarity and to the damage of individuals, families and society.
Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME).