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February 28, 2007

"Tax is solidarity" - Theodore Dalrymple diagnoses France's malaise: Their intellectuals' belief that tax is solidarity and justice is fairness - but the national sport is tax evasion

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Long live tax. Thus read a recent headline in the leading French newspaper Liberation. Yet France's national sport is tax evasion. Theodore Dalrymple argues that the belief that tax is solidarity and justice is fairness is at the heart of France's current problems.

Returning to France after an absence of three months, the first newspaper I picked up - Liberation - had one of the most arresting headlines I have ever seen anywhere: Vive l'impot, Long live tax. No wonder newspapers in France have the smallest circulation of any developed country.

Now of course we all recognise that taxation is necessary, just as we recognise that, in this fallen world, the police are necessary. No one could be more in favour of law and order than I, yet I should still mistrust someone who went around saying "Long live the police!" I would suspect that he was a sadist of some description, who enjoyed being cruel to animals and wanted criminals to be vilely abused or tortured.

The context in which Liberation published the headline was the forthcoming election in France. There is a profound sense of unease in the country: that it is has lost its rightful place in the world, that it is becoming a museum rather than an active economic force, that it is stagnating, that a substantial part of the population is completely and dangerously disaffected, and so forth. The question is what part high taxation and excessive bureaucratic centralisation plays in this syndrome. The fact is that the state, high taxes notwithstanding, is becoming ever more deeply indebted. It is living today as if there were no tomorrow. Apres nous le deluge has become government policy.

Both Le Monde and Liberation characterise any proposal to lower taxes in order to unleash the energies of the French people as demagogy. No doubt the subject is susceptible to demagogy: politicians will claim that they can lower taxes without sacking any of the employees who have a net negative effect on national output. But if you ask any small businessman in France why he finds it hard to expand his business, he will reply that the burden of taxation and regulation is simply too high. That is why so much has to be done na levo, as the Russians used to put it: on the left, or, in our parlance, under the table. The question of taxation is a real and important one, demagogues and demagoguery notwithstanding.

The real demagoguery, however, is on the other side of the question. An interview with an academic in the same issue of Liberation is headlined with a quotation from him:

Above all, tax is solidarity.
No doubt our own Mr Brown could not agree more.

The strange thing about this is that it views social solidarity as something that is forced and imposed rather than felt and voluntary. While taxation is supposedly a manifestation of the responsibility one citizen feels for the welfare of another, it has to be extorted from the citizenry, which does everything possible, and some things impossible, to avoid paying it. Where tax is solidarity, the national sport is tax evasion.

The peculiar thing is that the belief that tax is a kind of institutionalised kindness goes along with an attitude that makes a hero of anyone who succeeds in pulling the wool over the taxman's eyes, and commiserates with anyone who gets caught cheating on his taxes. I doubt that the journalists at Liberation are any different from their compatriots in this respect. We in Anglo-saxonia are hypocrites about sex, but they in France they are hypocrites about money.

Does anyone, when he pays his taxes, think to himself,

With this cheque I am being compassionate towards those less fortunate than I?
He is surely more likely to think that he is contributing to the salaries of the vast armies of bureaucrats and regulators that the state has employed to inhibit real economic activity. No doubt such salaries have a Keynesian effect upon aggregate demand, but no economy can survive entirely by everyone taking in everyone else's washing. Ultimately, something must be produced.

The academic was asked whether an almost confiscatory inheritance tax would put everyone of a footing of equality. Yes, certainly, he replied, and even the most liberal [economists] defend this idea as a means of reshuffling the cards. The only inconvenience he could see was that the prospect of leaving an inheritance to one's children was an important motive for human activity.

In the first part of the answer we see the modern mania for justice as fairness, to the complete detriment of civilisation itself, which is not at all valued. Civilisation is an accretion of achievements that no single person, and no single generation of people, can be expected to make in his or its own lifetime. Those who come after unfairly benefit from the efforts of those who have gone before; and since it is inevitable that, at any given time, some people benefit more than others from the civilisational inheritance (if only because parents pass on a varying degree of cultural and intellectual capital to their children), it is only right - from the justice as fairness point of view - that the world should be constantly razed to the ground so that no one should benefit more from it than anyone else.

Nothing should be taught to anybody, for fear that one person will be taught more than another; and medical schools, for example, must operate on the principle that every student should make every discovery for himself. Every generation must discover the circulation of the blood for itself, or not at all; and every generation must discover anaesthetics and penicillin.

Is it not manifest unfairness (and therefore injustice) that I should have a longer life expectancy than my father merely by virtue of having been born after him, and that those who were born after me should have a longer life expectancy than mine? What, indeed, could be worse unfairness (and therefore injustice), for is not life itself a precondition of everything else? It follows that each generation should start from a position of complete medical ignorance.

The belief that justice as fairness is the most important desideratum, indeed the only really important one, is profoundly destructive. In a world in which not everyone shares it, it also guarantees relative decay and economic regression. And, of course, it doesn't even lead to fairness; only to the creeping tyranny of bureaucrats.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.

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Many thanks to Theodore Dalrymple for this article. But it’s not only in France that this kind of thinking occurs – it seems to have been peddled by the media in this country, as far back as 1970 when they were going on about “Social Justice”.

But civilization also cuts both ways. I am not sure that it seemed like a good idea to those peoples living on the fringes of the Roman Empire, who were “mined” for slaves. Though I’m sure that those Celts who captured their neighbours to sell them to the Romans (or Vikings theirs to the Arabs, or Africans theirs to Modern Europeans) enjoyed the products of civilization.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 5, 2007 05:56 PM

Having read Emily Kingham's recent article about feral Essex boys, I must emphasize that I am not against civilization. Simply to remember, vis-a-vis les sauvages:

Pride comes before destruction; And a haughty look before a fall
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 12, 2007 03:51 PM
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