The people at Catallaxy are understandably unimpressed with the reasoning in today’s Clive Hamilton op-ed. Hamilton’s argument (such as it is), using the jailing of tax-evading music promoter Glenn Wheatley as a news hook, is summarised in this passage:
Despite their crimes, some of the tax cheats may feel a sense of grievance — because for some years our public culture and our political leaders have provided justification for tax shirking.
While the Federal Government has said that it will crack down on tax cheats, for years it has actively undermined public confidence in the legitimacy of taxation. Each time the Treasurer or the Prime Minister says he wants to cut the “burden” of taxes to put money back in the pockets of those who have worked hard to earn it, he buttresses the widespread view that governments are out to rip off the poor old taxpayer.
Conservative ideologues go even further, reinforcing the idea that taxation is theft. The Centre for Independent Studies, an influential right-wing think tank favoured by the Government, ceaselessly promotes the view that government is inherently hostile to individual interests and set on exploiting the taxpayer for no good reason.
…If you take this view of the government as a hostile force why would you pay your taxes? If taxation is theft, tax evasion is not only defensible in itself but a blow against an oppressive force.
According to Clive:
These arguments form part of a sustained shift away from thinking of ourselves as citizens with responsibilities to the public interest and towards thinking of ourselves as individuals with responsibilities to no one but ourselves and our families.
Hamilton’s argument is, on a moment’s reflection, very weak – even if some level of taxation is necessary for the ‘public interest’ he provides no evidence, not here or anywhere else, that the current level is necessary. Even the Australia Institute’s Christian Downie last year had a paper out arguing that tourism subsidies were a waste of money (hear, hear). There is no systematic evaluation of whether or not government programmes are value for money, or indeed whether they achieve anything worthwhile at all.
It is implausible to allege that calling for a change in the law is equivalent to calling for the law to be broken, and still more implausible to imply that people evade taxes because they read CIS discussion papers, rather than because they want the money for themselves. I think history will show us that people dodged the taxman for many centuries before the CIS was established in 1976.
But this op-ed is classic Clive. Not so much the guilt by association as the credibility by association. As I argued in my review of Hamilton’s Affluenza, he deeply dislikes modern society, but since his first book of social criticism, The Mystic Economist, he has learnt to sugar-coat his radical ideas with propositions that don’t seem terribly controversial, at least at first glance – we shouldn’t be materialistic, we should have work-life balance, too much debt is not good, or in this case tax evasion is bad.
There is an ascetic authoritarianism underlying Hamilton’s worldview, in which high taxation would be used to stop people indulging their frivolous desires for material goods, and transferred to an all-powerful state that would organise society along Clive-approved lines. He gets quite upset when accused of being an authoritarian. But there is more reason to infer that from his critique of modern society than there is to read a call for law-breaking into an argument for tax cuts passed by Parliament.