Do we really want to live in a country where politicians have to hand out their tax returns, medical history and birth certificate to the press, like they do in the United States? I don’t think voters want to make disclosing all that a part of the price of running for office in Britain. But the legitimacy of the tax and benefit system has been undermined by its complexity and too many stories of people breaking the rules, or twisting them out of all recognition.
We could respond to that by demanding more and more intrusions on people’s privacy. Polly Toynbee is already talking about forcing everyone to make the same kind of disclosure that the mayoral candidates just have. That might mean some people who are in the public eye pay more. Others will ignore it though, because they won’t be scrutinised or don’t care what we all think of them. Do you really think Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary would care if anyone called him a tax dodger? (Just a hypothetical example, I don’t have any reason to think he doesn’t pay his taxes). We would have a tax system that discriminates against those who care if the Guardian calls them names.
It won’t just be an issue for the fortunate either. If we all have to disclose the taxes we pay, then we’re one headline away from having to disclose any benefits we receive too. Benefit fraud upsets the median voter as much as tax dodging.
Instead of descending into an Athenian pit of mistrust, it would be much better to reform the tax and benefit system, so we can again trust that people will pay their fair share. That means simpler, lower taxes so that there are fewer loopholes and there is less of an incentive to spend time and money looking for them. It means treating income from capital and labour the same – taxing each stream of income once – so that we don’t have to care whether Ken Livingstone sets up a business or not. Hopefully, that’s the kind of tax system we will outline in the forthcoming report of the 2020 Tax Commission, which we have been working on at the TaxPayers’ Alliance with the Institute of Directors.
If Britain’s tax code remains as dysfunctional as it is now, then voters and the press will rightly demand that politicians prove they aren’t taking advantage of its idiosyncrasies. If they want their privacy, they need to stop putting sticking plasters on the gaping wound that is tax avoidance and evasion – inadvertently hitting charities in the process – and instead address the fundamental problems with a tax system that has lost its legitimacy.