There are problems with wealth taxes but avoidance, for once, isn't one of them

Taxing illiquid assets is, well, taxing.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, has a column in today's Telegraph arguing that George Osborne needs to learn the lesson that "wealth taxes simply don't work". He writes:

The problems involved were fairly basic. Do you tax people’s worldwide wealth? If so, those much-needed businessmen will stay away. Do you tax only British wealth? Then people will move their investments abroad. The Treasury warned Healey that the proposed wealth tax was “political dynamite” – and not in a good way. At a time when Britain was in a desperate economic state, it risked dragging the country down further still. Healey gave up, saying he could not find any wealth tax that would be worth the political hassle.

This is disappointing, because Nelson is largely duelling with straw men here. It is indeed true that a tax on overall wealth could well lead to tax avoidance by the relatively simple tax planning strategy known as "keeping your cash in a Swiss bank account". The thing is, that isn't actually that much of a problem. After all, people avoid income tax as well, yet somehow we struggle on.

The measure for a tax is never "will everyone pay it rather than put their energy into avoiding it?", but "will enough people pay it to make it worth our while?" That's a different calculus, and one which Nelson doesn't address.

But the real disappointment is that, for all Nelson talks about the rising support for a wealth tax, he neglects to mention that most of that support is for taxing a very specific type of wealth: property. It's a shame, because that sort of tax – a "mansion tax", a "land value tax", or whatever form it takes – has its own set of problems which are under-discussed.

The important thing to note about property taxes do is that they completely fix the problems Nelson is concerned about when it comes to wealth taxes in general. You can keep money overseas, but a house in Britain is rather stuck where it is. To the extent that such a tax it increases the cost of living in Britain, it may keep wealthy foreigners away – but only those who haven't already been put off by the extraordinary cost of the sort of houses wealthy foreigners buy.

The thing is, land and property taxes aren't the golden bullet that many on the left like to think, for the key reason that houses aren't particularly liquid assets.

We've all heard the sob-story of the elderly pensioner who could be forced to sell the house he's lived in all his life to pay the land value tax (although we rarely hear it alongside its counterpart, the elderly pensioners who are being forced to moved out of houses they've lived in all their lives because of benefit cuts), but the key concern with such a tax is related to that problem.

If you are taxed, say, 20 per cent of your cash holdings, you pay that tax by handing 20 per cent of your cash to HMRC. If you are taxed on 20 per cent of the value of your land, you can't just hand a wing of your house over to the taxman. You either have to have the cash equivalent available, or sell your house.

Taken individually, that's not the end of the world – few will cry too hard if the odd landowner has to sell a few acres to pay the bill. The problem comes if the tax is set high enough that that sort of sale becomes commonplace.

If too many people end up trying to sell their mansions or land at the same time, then you're stuck with a sadly inevitable collapse in the price that land can go for. That's not just unfair – it means you would be taxing people on assets which are no longer worth what they were when you assessed them – it's also staggeringly inefficient. A well-designed tax should not encourage a fire-sale of assets.

These problems aren't insurmountable, by any means. But they do give pause for thought when considering the truely radical proposals like Peter Tatchell's plan to set the wealth tax rate at 20 per cent. Although back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest such a tax would generate truly staggering revenue, a more modest rate would be a better idea – at least at the start.

This mansion, in Kensington, London, was once the most expensive in the world. What'd the tax be? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”