Give Peace a Chance

Let’s begin by eating our greens.

Shortly after the launch of the Fair Tax Mark earlier this year, Mike Truman, Editor of Taxation, published an article [£] assessing the Mark’s award criteria. The pass mark was 65% with up to 20% awarded by reference to the relationship between an applicant’s average tax rate (“ATR”) and the then headline rate of corporation tax. The ATR was calculated by reference to the tax rate paid over the previous four years. In his article, Mike Truman expressed a preference for a weighted average (such that the rate paid in years where profits were higher counted more heavily than the rate paid in years where profits were lower) rather than the unweighted ATR adopted by the Mark. Mike Truman also reported the view of the Technical Director of the Fair Tax Mark, Richard Murphy, that in 95% of cases it would make no difference. It was not suggested that there was any bias inherent in the adoption of an unweighted rather than a weighted ATR.

If you were toying with your broccoli, now to the beef. The criticism was merely this: a technically less purist measure, making (it was claimed) no difference in 95% of cases, had been used in relation to but 20% of the weighting for the Mark.

Yet from such an unpromising beachhead, and without other serious technical criticism, was launched attack after attack on the technical soundness of the Mark. And, in a manner equally unattractive, its defenders accused the attackers of base motive. That, in other words, they were actuated purely by a desire to preserve their turf; to enrich themselves, and their wealthy clients, and to preserve their monopoly over public debate on this most critical public policy arena.

That was, on any view, a profoundly one-dimensional anecdote. You will expect me, in due course, to seek to justify its telling. But first a diversion.

There are those – let me call them the Moralists – who seek to bring about broad social change and who recognise the tax system as an important tool to achieve that change. Their champions, in the UK at least, are such figures as Alex Andreou, Polly Toynbee, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge, and the grandfather of them all, the aforementioned Richard Murphy.

The Moralists have, of course, political detractors who disagree either with the Moralists’ objectives or with their assessment of how to use tax policy to achieve them. These political detractors are, in a sense, Moralists too. UKIP, until very recently, advocated a flat rate of tax as a means to “make all taxpayers better off.” However, this rather energetic logic has never featured heavily on their policy platform and so they are, disappointingly, less visible members of the Moralist class.

The Moralists have a further group of detractors. They are tax academics, practitioners, and even the odd member of the Bar. They occupy a smaller stage, those merry few. They are guardians of the craft of taxation and invisible to a public with but the barest interest in such matters.The thrillingly uninhibited Christie Malry – a witty pseudonym referencing the eponymous subject of BS Johnson’s novel – who tweets as @fcablog is perhaps as good an exemplar as any. I shall call them the Technocrats.

Such justification as I can offer – I didn’t say I would, only that I would try – of the anecdote set out above is as synecdoche. It aptly illustrates the unproductive nature of debate between the Moralists and the Technocrats. Neither recognises the role played by the other. Too often the Moralists boldly go where no well informed advocate for social change would. Too often the Technocrats look at questions of social reform through the wrong end of the telescope.

But each needs the other. Tax is a legitimate tool to achieve social change and the Technocrat must recognise that lest he be shorn of moral purpose. The Moralist, too, must recognise that, as I have put it (in an otherwise nugatory article) elsewhere, by moral fury alone she will not get the job done.

This is my plea to give peace a chance.

Thanks to @alexcobham who got me started on this.

17 thoughts on “Give Peace a Chance

  1. Really interesting piece, Jolyon, and thanks for the nod/dipping my hands in the blood (delete as appropriate!).

    Two thoughts occur (the second more constructive):

    1. Peace might have been better served by more neutral labelling: there is technical skill on each side (if sides there are), and ideological positioning too, rather than it being a case of technical against ideological. To distinguish a class of Technocrats which stands in opposition both to the Moralists and their ideological opponents would require a much narrower drawing of the lines: perhaps so narrow as to exclude all participants, since few are truly able to separate their political instincts entirely from their technical analysis.

    Let me have a quick go at drawing some different lines. Consider those who are not, by and large, people whose political (or moral) alignment is unclear, or only in one direction, but whose engagements in the debate are always substantive (and frequently educational, for me at least). They take a more academic (NB not ‘neutral’) approach, so perhaps Tax Academics would not be an unreasonable label. Since few of them are academics, Tax Thinkers might be better. Needless to say, on the Venn diagram this category includes some of both Moralists and Technocrats (more of the latter, of course).

    If one were to define a group in opposition to this, Tax Unthinkers perhaps, it would be those whose responses tend to the fiery and the more personal. This would group would also overlap on the Venn diagram with both the Moralists and Technocrats; but also with the Tax Thinkers. In part because of the nature of online discourse, some at least of the substantive contributors are also capable of flaming their opponents, occasionally or more often.

    By way of a brief illustration: the range of accounting professionals’ responses to their institute’s positive response to the Fair Tax Mark demonstrates the point well:

    Finally, of those you might label as Moralists, there will be many who are neither Tax Thinkers nor Unthinkers – but non-technical and non-confrontational contributors (Contributors?) to debate. I worry that your classification overlooks their numbers and their contribution, by suggesting an inevitable confrontation against the thinking, technical other.

    Perhaps then it might be better not to go further with a labelling exercise. Is it too cheesy to quote the first lines of the song from whence your title?
    Ev’rybody’s talkin’ ’bout
    Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
    This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
    All we are saying…

    2. I applaud and share the aim of your piece. Too often a personal animosity seems to enter discussions, to the credit of no participant. How then might we move on from “the unproductive nature of debate”? Honestly, I don’t know.

    One thing I’m fairly sure of is that there is unlikely to be a useful avenue in hoping that we can establish a pure, neutral technocratic discussion. Tax is a social act and a political one by definition, and I don’t think such a neutrality, if meaningful, is possible. But I do believe there is a space for a much more productive discussion among tax thinkers and others, which might perhaps over time reduce the tendency towards unthinkingness in their interactions. How you establish the grounds for that though, I’m not sure. Quitting Twitter might be the best advice.

    Or perhaps this is just part of the process of tax being understood more widely as political, and the engagement of the more and less technical, and the more and less overtly political participants, developing over time to one of greater understanding and respect. (This happens sometimes on Twitter, right? Oh.)

    I have some good personal relationships with tax people who regularly flame each other, and do often wonder if an occasional meeting in person might not change the nature of their interaction. Perhaps a semi-regular, informal tax thinker/contributor meeting/curry/pint would help? Maybe you’d like to host the first? In the spirit of your post allow me to offer as title, the John and Yoko tax dinners.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. The drawing of any given line necessarily excludes others (if you want the lawyer’s latin tag – expressio unius est exlusio alterius). I drew mine where I did because it illustrates the point I wanted to make. There will always be ideological differences – which can or should produce engagement and debate – but this dichotomy isn’t about ideological differences and it stands to produce nothing. There is a tendency on the part of the ‘Technocrats’ to park their moral engagement at the door and on the part of the Moralists to leap to moral judgment without adequate evidence. The solution, of course, is for both sides to recognise the contribution that the other has to make, and to recognise the limitations of their own learning. A shocking undergraduate truism, I am afraid.

    Of course my categories are ciphers. Few contributors are pure Moralists or Technocrats and some can justifiably claim to have a foot in each camp. I neither could nor would ask for a pure neutral technocratic discussion. Tax has always had an important moral dimension: it is a mechanical means to a moral or political end. The mechanics are unimportant save to such extent as they deliver, efficiently and without side effects, that end. But the delivery of that end, efficiently and without side effects, requires that the Technocrats engage their moral selves and the Moralists appreciate that they can learn important things of the craft of taxation.

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  4. Pingback: Tax Research UK » Give tax peace a chance?

  5. Jolyon – I agree with the spirit of your call to ‘give peace a chance’ (I have also been saying something similar: see – )

    And I think Alex’s proposal of informal bread-breaking discussions between folks on all sides who share a desire for more and better informed public debate on tax matters (even if they dissagree on much else) is an excellent one.

    I would hope that the ‘John-and-Yoko dinners’ would not just be about privately defusing accrimony between experts on opposing sides, but about improving the public terms of the debate so that non-experts (be they journalists, NGO leaders, campaign staff, politicians or the general public) can understand the evidence, claims and proposed solutions clearly.

    I would hope that tax thinkers in NGOs, academia and the proffessions could get behind this.

  6. Pingback: Tax Research UK » There is no chance of tax peace

  7. Thanks to both of you for trying to set out the foundations for bridge building. I am part of a Trade Union whose members “do” tax. It would be hard to think of a more obvious example of people who are both “moralists ” and “tax professionals” (aka “Technocrats “). We are equally shocked by “purists” on either side of this line. The old chestnuts of things like conflating turnover with profits can really damage a message of social justice. And it can be equally frustrating to see bodies like the PAC miss what to us are obvious chances to ask the questions that would expose some larger corporations.
    Tempting as a dichotomy is for analytical purposes I agree with Alex that many people have elements of both. Indeed I know that many “Technocrats” share some of the Moralists concerns and hopes. So I don’t think it helpful for anybody to be consigned to the Seventh Circle and dammed.
    But maybe we can take some comfort from the fact a dialogue is emerging. And also be realistic in accepting that there are whole swathes of social and economic policy where people disagree – we will never get or want unanimity there.
    Perhaps though we can learn how to discuss and disagree without the kind of ad hominem attacks that seem too prevalent.We can even agree on some of the terms so that we discuss the substance and not go at cross purposes.
    Our union is ourganizing an event on the merits of transparency and public understanding in tax policy. If Alex/Jolyon are interested in attending (8 July London) we’d value your participation. DM me on Twitter for details. (iaincampbell07).

  8. Sorry for not commenting here before, and let me add my praise to Jolyon for such a thoughtful article.

    Before commenting holistically, let me comment synecdochally… My original article gave the new FTM 14/20, so a pass mark on its own terms. I did criticise it for not weighting by profits, although I think I am right that in subsequent exchanges with Richard I understood that the rate he was using was effectively a profit-weighted one – i would need to check that back.

    My real criticism, though, was (in your terms) a Moralist one – it is actually a tax transparency mark rather than a broader guarantee of having paid a fair level of tax (cf Greggs and paying an “unfair” rate of VAT).

    Holistically, I think Alex has the more interesting primary division; between those who argue on a naval wardroom basis – bald assertion, followed by flat denial, followed by personal abuse – and those who would prefer to respond more analytically and empathetically. Online discussions do show a particularly strong variation of Gresham’s law, where bad conversation drives out the good. Face to face might help, and both ARC and Mazars have tried to get something like that going, though I am not sure that it has got past the stage of being relatively civil to the point of actually achieving anything.

    But the sad thing is, I am really much more of a Moralist than Technocrat. I do believe tax has a social purpose, and do want a progressive system. i have been strongly against aggressive avoidance in the magazine, and never accepted the argument that if it is not contrary to black letter law it is fine to do it. However, I recognise that I end up contributing to the degeneration of discussion, because it is hard to keep from flaming when under extreme provocation…

    The problem is the same as the old joke about the Unitarian who gets to heaven and is being shown round by St Peter. Being a Unitarian, he’s delighted to find Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and everyone else all enjoying the version of heaven their particular faith or denomination envisaged. Eventually they come to a 5 metre high wall completely enclosing one small area of heaven, from inside which the faint sound of defiant singing can be heard.

    “Who’s in there?” the Unitarian asks.

    “Oh that’s the [insert name of fundamentalist sect here],” says St Peter. “they like to believe they’re the only people here.

  9. It wasn’t my intention to badge you as a Technocrat – although I know that’s how some have read me. The anecdote about your article was more by way of introduction to the (at least for the purposes of my article) illuminating exchanges that followed.

    But thanks for responding, Mike. And so thoughtfully too.

  10. I think you’re right about the point on twitter: it’s not the best place for discussions. The restriction on number of characters forces individuals to shorten their speech and sound blunter than they are.

    However, many forums where there is opportunity for discussion end up seeming partisan in one way or another. I had quite high hopes for Mazars tax transparency blog, I have to say.

    One point I wanted to pick up is the question of neutrality. I think this is something which is correct to a certain extent, but doesn’t apply to all of taxation.

    The formulation of tax policy is political, certainly. There’s no doubting that. However, many technical issues cannot really be coloured by political thought.

    For example, the question of whether something is tax avoidance or not: I don’t think that’s inherently political. You don’t have to agree with the reasons behind a policy to understand the intention of Parliament, and I think it is possible to consider the matter dispassionately.

    Of course, subjects can become imbued with political sentiment. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like individual cases being used as a political football. Firstly, it may introduce bias. Secondly, it introduces the perception that there may be bias.

    I would make the point that simply because there is the potential of bias, and the perception that there can be bias, does not mean there is bias. It simply means that safeguards against bias are needed.

    That’s where dialogue becomes important. Open discussion helps identify instances of political or personal bias which can be removed. Quite often, that looks like a technical discussion which moralists might feel is pedantic, but it has to be a part of the process.

    Ultimately, every person only has incomplete knowledge derived from a single set perspective. The more perspectives you account for, the more complete your knowledge becomes.

  11. Interesting debate, although I disagree that Richard Murphy and Polly Toynbee should be described as tax moralists.

    Tax moralists would typically refer to Robert Nozick whose (very powerful) ideas run entirely counter to those of Richard’s and Polly’s, et al.

    Richard and Polly are wanting to re-fashion the tax system to achieve political ends, not moral ends.

  12. Not sure whether my thoughts are any longer especially relevant. Once you put these notions out there you no longer own them. But it had not been my intention to confer on the term “Moralist” any flavour of right or wrong (hence my description of UKIP’s “energetic logic” as Moralist”). Rather it was intended to communicate a political ends based approach to taxation – as compared with the mechanical approach of “Technocrat”.

  13. Bear with me as i start from way over left field, i promise i am heading back in to the point at issue…

    There are other variations of a split like Moralist and Technocrat; in fact it is a pervasive meme, possibly since Aristotle (Technocrat?) and Plato (Moralist?). I’ve read very little of either, but when I have tried, Aristotle sets my teeth on edge with his constant numbering and dissecting.

    Humanism, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism – they all seem to be swings of the pendulum to one or the other of these two sides. Classicism v Romanticism is probably the broadest way to phrase them, and they have always had problems talking to each other, precisely because, as Jolyon says, they use different languages. A Classicist view of daffodils would distinguish them from other flowers by shape, colour etc, a Romantic view involves wandering lonely as a cloud until you spy them…

    At this year’s Hay Festival, I saw Stefan Collini speak about his annotated edition of CP Snow’s The Two Cultures speech. It seem to me that Snow, although talking about humanities and science, was also talking to a great extent about Classicism and Romanticism, although he certainly saw science as having a strong ethical drive.

    What, however, is possibly most interesting about Collini’s ideas, for this debate, is that he is clearly a supporter of FR Leavis. Leavis launched a brutal attack on Snow in a speech of his own, criticising his scientific achievements, and then saying (in a pre-prepared line) “Snow is, of course, a – no I can’t say that. Snow thinks of himself as a novelist”. Collini’s view is that this level of vituperation was both necessary and justified in order to shock people out of the placid acceptance they would have had of Snow’s arguments. But, for many people, the vituperation became the story, and turned them against Leavis, so the arguments he was making did not get as much support as they might otherwise have done.

    Having said I would get back to the point at issue, maybe I’ll just leave you to make your own way back from here…

  14. I wish you hadn’t left me to make my own way back… not sure I can do it. But Leavis’ attack reminds me very much of the late great John Updike’s on Tom Woolf’s A Man in Full, which Updike said exposed Woolf as “Not a novelist. Not even an aspirant novelist”. Personally I think there is much to be said for the view that personal attacks are acceptable – but only if they are very funny indeed.

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  16. The problem is that a bunch of the people who consider themselves technocrats are phonies. “Christie Malry” is a pretty good example — every single one of his pieces is a political attack targeting something he doesn’t like on moral grounds. Very few of them are technocratically sound.

    He never attacks, on technical grounds, stuff which supports his right-wing Tory “all power to the property holders” moral views. An actual technocrat would.

    He’s a moralist impersonating a technocrat. This is a problematic mode of discourse.

  17. He’d best answer that criticism himself. But for what it’s worth my own experience of him is that he is technically pretty good. But it’s a good point that I’m not aware of many ‘Moralists’ who tweet from a Tory perspective. I wonder why that is?

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