Riyadh, Wednesday 3rd July 2013
Earlier this week a British Conservative MP, Tim Laughton, made a point of reminding the Conservative wing of the coalition government that it campaigned at the last General election on a platform that included a commitment to reintroduce ‘Married Couples Tax Allowance,” a tax break for couples who have decided to get married.
He went further, demanding that this manifesto commitment be brought forward so that it is in place before the next General Election, set for the Spring of 2015. This policy commitment has been a feature of Conservative Party policy for many years and that it has not been introduced so far in this parliament is unusual, especially in light of recent legislation opening up marriage to gay people. Whatever your stance on that issue, it shows that this government is not afraid to legislate in the personal sphere of British life. Moreover, this is, on one level a tax cut, that rarest of things in the current global environment. Why not introduce it?
Well there are several reasons. The Conservatives require Liberal support to pass it, for one thing. And their coalition partners are not keen. Another reason is that it may be that it is being held back as part of a pre-election give-away. The Conservative Party believe in this policy and believe it is popular. Most British people are either married, have been married or aspire to be married. It is unlikely to win many votes on its own but it would be a nice narrative to say, “we have taken the hard decisions, now we can afford to reward you for the sacrifices you have had to make.”
Yes it is a wee bit cynical, but so what. It is politics.
A third reason is that it is a policy which carries far more weight in people’s heads than in their wallets. It is important for what it stands for rather than what it achieves and does not really warrant much scrutiny. It requires the subsidy of the unmarried to achieve it without affecting revenues to the treasury and it fails to effect married couples monthly income by more than a small amount. The figure touted is an overall reduction to the family tax burden of 305 pounds per year (or 12 pounds & 71 pence per person per month); welcome certainly, but unlikely to sway voters in itself. Moreover, because more than two-thirds of British people are able to claim it, the tax burden on those left over has to rise by more than this amount or be met by sending cuts elsewhere to finance it.
For maximum impact it needs to be introduced before people see how little they benefit from it and before liberal commentators start pointing out its flaws.
Well I am a Liberal, and its flaws are manifest.
Tax is a problem for this government as it is for all governments. It will always rise. The rich will always avoid paying it. The poor or the newly entitled “Squeezed middle” will always be left with the lion’s share of the burden. Tax is inherently unpopular, in part because it is unresponsive to our individual preoccupations and priorities, in part because it is compulsory and in part because it never seems to end.
Everyone feels they pay too much of it, most people feel that they pay more than their fair share and get too little back in return. It is, in the face of such evidence, remarkable that modern democracies persist in maintaining such a system and that they have not long ago replaced it with insurance based systems.
This governments instinct is to free people from tax. It is made up of Liberals and Conservatives who on the whole want to let people get on with their lives. But this is a problem. Because tax has had to rise and the net rewards fall in the face of large debt repayments. It is little wonder that temptation exists to tell the natural supporters of the Conservative part of this coalition, ‘we are on your side.’
But there are limitations to ideological tax cutting, even for the most fervent.
Can you imagine, for example, if a western democracy allowed you to opt in to the taxation you wanted. Healthcare would be popular, intelligence agencies less so. And we can extend this further. What if we allowed people to pay the amount they deemed necessary for each public service. You could offer people the option of paying a few cents, a few dollars or a few tens of dollars on a sliding scale of delivery. For a few cents, you get the right to expect that the state militia will defend your country in the event of invasion. Pay enough and they will post armed guards in your driveway and offer protection from cyber attack.
Silly? Well yes. But not that silly.
Plenty of people in the US and elsewhere argue cogently for low levels of taxation and for insurance based money collection to replace large elements of State taxation. And while a sliding insurance system might seem unwise with something as occasionally important as national defense, or intelligence, we should not forget that both the Founding-Fathers in America and the Parliamentarians who deposed the English monarch after the English Civil War, both disbanded the Army following victory. Not until their respective entries into the Great Wars of the 20th Century did either Britain or the US have large standing armies on home soil.
And if it is silly, there is something else we must remember. Almost all of us (whether we realize it or not), are in favour of some sort of progressive taxation. Obviously the left are. The French Socialist Government have taxed the rich at such a level that most rich Frenchmen and women prefer to live in London.
But the right too, has their pet projects and subjects who deserve disproportionate State attention or protection. On the whole, of course, the right tends (at least since the second half of the Twentieth Century) to advocate a larger share of a decreasing overall cake for such projects. Famously, George W Bush lowered taxation while increasing spending on defense, for example. Yet the net effect is to spend a proportionately larger quantity of tax on the things specific governments like and decreasing spending on the things they don’t.
Let us not fixate on defense, however, as its return is on the whole very hard to calculate as the only noticeable benefits to society are, in the main measured in absences. Veterans miss limbs, homes miss sons and husbands and fathers and the pay-off is an absence of foreign Jack-boots two-stepping down our high streets.
There are other things the right like instinctively and the left like a lot less. Things more easily measured in terms of perceived benefits to the wider society. And Married Couple’s Tax Allowance is one of these.
It has been batted in and out of British Legislation repeatedly and it has been a feature of British politics since the 1950’s, introduced by Tory Governments and promptly removed by incoming Labour Governments.
Its underlying principle is simple. It is upheld by governments that believe that society benefits from marriage, that there are happier children, raised in more solid homes, that marriage encourages stable, longer lasting and more reliable homesteads, in which the individual components are less lightly to rootlessly drift in and out of employment.
The Benefits of Marriage, it is argued are so all-encompassing and so important in maintaining a strong, cohesive and responsible society, that it should be encouraged by any right thinking State Tax system. Consequently, the State will tax married couples less than couples who choose not to marry or individuals who for whatever reason have similarly not married. It acts as a reward for stable normality and responsibility and an incentive to join this moral majority.
It is politically cheep as well. It is subsidized on the whole by those who are not married, but many of them believe in marriage and aspire to it. It is much less important in commercial terms than pay rises, or even pay bonuses, associated with employment, and it is completely insignificant next to home ownership, educative attainment or inflation. It is important for what it says and to whom it says it.
The left have always promptly ended the Married Couples tax allowance, not because they disagree with the idea that Marriage leads to a more stable society, but because they tend to believe that the taxation should be spent elsewhere. The last Labour Government introduced something called child tax credits by ending the Married Couples Tax Allowance, because they believed, rightly or wrongly that people with children should enjoy the benefit of lower taxation rather than people who chose to marry.
This is interesting because while neither policy could be described as very effective and both can be described as on one level moral in purpose the reality is that both are utterly amoral (IE: neither morally good or bad) in execution. Rather, they are simply a reward for those who are ideologically likely to form the basis of your parties electorate.
Now, the first thing here is to declare and interest. I do not dispute that marriage is a good thing either for those who choose to marry or for society generally. I do not dispute it in large part because marriage is a pretty long-standing part of humanity’s history (older than recorded history in fact) and in consequence, is pretty essential to our collective make-up.
Neither do I dispute that Governments benefit from marriage. It is hard to apply measures, but if we assume that a stable home leads to a less delinquent child (and I have no reason to doubt this as a gross generalization), then it is safe to assume that marriage is probably good for reducing the cost of crime to society.
And yet, I am opposed to this pointless, fatuously ideological and clumsy piece of social engineering. In fact I believe that it stinks.
I have several reasons for this which I will outline in detail below but before I go further, I will, having declared an interest, now reveal that henceforth, this post will not refer to MCTA, but instead to The Ugly Tax.
For that, regrettably, is what it is in all but name. The underlying principle behind The Ugly Tax is that people fall in love and that marriage is the next natural step for them. Only the pesky little blighter’s just don’t do enough of it. Despite the fact that marriage in the United Kingdom has become more popular since the Ugly Tax was discontinued in 1998, the assumption still stands that people require an incentive to marriage.
This is demonstrably crass, nonsense. While I do not dispute that Marriage is a fine institution and decry no one for wanting to undertake such a positive commitment, the mere fact that a smaller percentage of the population of Britain got married when there was a tax allowance for doing so demonstrates articulately, the pointlessness of its purpose and ineffectiveness of its results. But there is more, much more:
- The Ugly Tax Doesn’t work: If we assume that the purpose of the Ugly Tax is to encourage marriage where is the evidence? After 1945, marriage became less popular in Britain (as it did across Western democracies) and steadily declined for the next 60 years. In part this is the result of a general decline in church attendance and Christianity, in part this is a consequence of society becoming more permissive and more free, and in part this is the result of feminism liberating an increasing number of women and (with the help of the contraceptive pill) freeing women’s bodies and allowing them to contemplate bigger dreams. This did not mean that society as a whole stopped marrying. It remains something which most of us do. The point is, that society as a whole no longer demands that we do and consequently, some of us choose not to.
- Marriage has become more popular without the Ugly Tax: I have discussed this above, but it is worth reminding ourselves that Marriage is more popular today than it was when we last had the Ugly Tax, demonstrating its crass ineffectiveness as a medium of encouraging marriage. It is so insignificant in fact that it is less important than general social trends and attitudes, the nature of Schooling, the social class or the global economy in influencing people’s decision to get hitched. In fact, more people get married out of obligation and guilt at bringing a child into the world than choose to marry for a tax break. Considering that there is next to no social stigma associated with baring a bastard anymore, this eloquently demonstrates the utter valulessness of this pointless policy.
- It rewards the lucky and punishes the unlucky: The allowance implied in the formal title implies that the Ugly Tax is a beatific gift, a wedding present as it were, on behalf of the state to a married couple, allowing them to spend more of their money as they see fit. But while it is doubtless welcomed by those married couples who receive it, the money has to come from somewhere. And it comes from those who have either by misfortune or choice, not married. This motley crew includes non-conformists and radical feminists, the sexually and temperamentally promiscuous, the unfortunate, the introvert, and the plane. It also includes nuns, divorcees and the widowed. There are some in society who make a mental choice not to marry. There are some who do not marry because they never get round to it. But there are some who never find love, who dreamed of white weddings in Norman flint churches with kindly vicar and confetti and attendant family on a bright June Saturday, but just never find the right person. For such people, to be required by statute to subsidize those who often by no greater feat than being sexually attractive have found a partner seems a cruel way for a society to behave. And then there are the widowed; people who have done nothing wrong save for lose their partner and with them the joint dreams of happiness that their union represented. Now, in the midst of their grief, they are obliged to pay additional tax. For the sake of just over a tenner a month, this is little short of a state sponsored insult.
- The Ugly Tax punishes principled non-conformity: Whatever the mainstream of society might like to believe, there is little to fear from our fellow citizens on the whole. All societies fear young men and seek ways to tie them to societies moral norms. Yet the truth is that most young men and women choose to settle down and accept small dreams in time and require no tax incentive to do so. There are some who truly believe, however that society is a stifling conformist hegemony determined to stamp out their individuality, creativity and freedom. I don’t agree with these people. I think on the whole society could not care less either way about their lives. But the British and Americans live in hard-won Liberal Democracies which value individual freedoms above all else. Consequently the existence of such people is proof that our cherished society functions as intended. Freedom, real freedom, is the right to choose not to marry and the state which punishes such people is a state which is itself dysfunctional.
- The Ugly Tax fundamentally misunderstands the drivers for marriage: In almost all cases, sexual relationships between men and women are initiated, directed and ended by women. If we assume that most men will be receptive to most sexual advances, and that women are more selective and less tolerant of their partners imperfections, this becomes more clear. Most (though not all) women dream as children of their wedding day. There are plenty of people who will argue that this is a feature of a patriarchal society focusing limiting dreams of submissive behavior on women. They may be right. But either way, the fact is that women tend to dream of marriage, tend to spend proportionately more time planning the wedding and tend on the whole to end marriages more frequently than men. Women are the drivers of the institution of marriage and their reasons are complicated mixtures of desire for a stable nest in which to nurture children, desire to create binds with a protective male and pool resources in a stable environment and a desire both to conform to the expectations of other women and to fulfill romantic ideals. In other words, Marriage is its own reward. No tax allowance is going to make a major difference.
- The Ugly Tax does not prevent divorce: I am not referring to all divorces. Abusive or ill-advised unions are probably not going to be encouraged by many except the most devout. But there are other unions which end, and which do so (if not happily) amicably. Might these Unions be saved? Well the evidence suggests that in some cases the answer is yes. People can and do stay together for the sake of their children, living out lives of mutual detachment and lovelessness in the hope that their children will not notice and will pass examinations unencumbered by the burden imposed by a broken home. Yet this is a decision, made solemnly out of love by two people who are acting out of an all-powerful devotion to the vulnerable life that their union has created. They love their children so much that they will be prepared to live unfulfilled and unhappy, lives to protect their wee lives from the complex, unknowable pain of adult love. Can a tax break exercise the same effect? Well, I know of no evidence that it can, doubt that it ever has and would feel pretty grubby if I held a discussion with a woman I once loved to say that we should stay together because it would earn us a few pounds more a month. In any case one of the parties would stand to benefit far more in commercial terms from the divorce.
- No one has ever decided to marry because of The Ugly Tax: “Darling! I love you. Will you marry me..? No..? You do realize that we will benefit by a tax break if we marry… YES!!!!! [cue wedding bells]” As if…
- Marriage is a Public Declaration of Private Love: Just as on the day of judgement all individuals will have to stand by their actions before their God, so humanity has devised methodologies of measuring and testing our fidelity to moral codes of behavior. I have good points and bad points but like all people I expect that if I marry it will be for the right reasons. Consequently, if my reasoning is influenced in any way by the prospect of a tax break, of whatever significance, I am succumbing to a moral diminution of reasoning and love. I am giving into greed and if I understand codes of public morality, whether expressed in the secular or theological sphere, greed is, on the whole not to be encouraged and public greed, is, in almost all societies, downright rude. As an individual with a moral compass that must mostly point true north, The Ugly Tax represents a nasty, distasteful and grubby little bribe.
- The Ugly Tax is no business of the State: For me this is the most persuasive argument of all. I might believe that Marriage is a good thing. I might believe that it is worth encouraging. I might believe that it is better for the resolutely single to be encouraged to conform with societies norms than for them to self indulgently pursue their pleasures independently. I might believe that children are better cared for in cellular home and that there is lower crime and a better work ethic in married households than unmarried ones. I might believe that the nations supply of affordable housing is adversely affected by divorce. I might hold robust religious convictions about the sanctity of marriage and form staunchly held withering condemnation for those who taunt God’s will through their sin. But I am an individual and am obligated by the laws both of my conscience, my God and the country in which I reside. And in the end, whatever I believe, if I live in a secular liberal Democracy, I have to accept that other people will choose to behave as they will and that I have no greater power to use the state in their persecution than they have in mine. In the end, I have to serve my God through my conduct, not though imposing upon theirs. That is the principle which underpins both the American and British systems of freedom under the law. To be clear, the State has no business encouraging or discouraging the personal loves and affairs of its subjects. It sole reason for being is to protect our individual freedoms and our sole responsibility towards it, is to ensure it has the means to do so.
- I am not married and the tax allowance would not have made a difference: I am resident of a country in which personal freedoms are less than in the United Kingdom and where aspects of society are far more strictly controlled by the state. My partner cannot come to visit me here and if we arranged to meet in a neighboring country we would not be able to do so as an overt and loving couple. The freedoms I would enjoy were we married would be far greater. I would be able to live with her here. I would be able to share a car with her and go to the supermarket together. For in this country marriage is not merely encouraged by the state. It is a necessary precondition of male and female interaction. Taking its lead from the state, my employer offers generous rewards for people on married Status. They are not obliged to live with colleagues as the single men are. They are provided a three bedroom apartment in a compound and better annual leave. Their salaries are supplemented by more general medical coverage extended to their whole family and inclusive of benefits for expectant partners should they wish to extend their families. Live long enough here on Married Status and I can expect illness to be better treated and my teeth to be in better condition through dental coverage than if I remained here as a single man. Moreover, wherever I live, if I marry I can expect better promotion, higher salary, a more prosperous retirement more successful children and a longer life (assuming I am statistically average). And yet my partner and I have not married. We may do one day. I am certainly married to her in my heart. But it has never come up. Not once. And it is not just me. Not one single colleague I have worked with in my nearly five years in the Middle East has got married (one of them has divorced). Many are already married of course. But their wives have remained at home. It is reasonable to assume therefore that if all the benefits and entitlements available to married couples here added to the restrictions on freedoms imposed upon the single, here, do not induce couples to marry, that none will get or remain married to benefit from less than 13 pounds a month, received from a government which takes a large percentage of your income away in taxation before you begin. The Ugly Tax in any free society is going to have a minimal practical effect.
- The Ugly Tax makes me subsidize the wealthy: Please tell me, why I should be forced to subsidize through taxation, people who have twice my earning potential? A married couple can both work to feather the family nest. They benefit in real terms each day from economies of scale. Why need I pay more for their privilege? Why is the state choosing to reward what is in effect, a lifestyle choice which some people make? If you wish to judge me as a person of faith, then so be it. But to be judged by a government elected to serve the people of all faiths and none, is hypocrisy pure and simple.
- A Party of the right tinkering with the State’s levers of power: And so we have a political party looking to enact legislation which will not work practically and will never, even in the longest of long-term scenarios alter a single perspective in favour of marriage. Rather it will act as a nice and welcome boost to the majority who are either married already or plan to get married in the future while penalizing the minority who are required to subsidize them. The people who benefit will feel no discernible benefit to a tax break which will be eclipsed by the effect of house price inflation, food inflation, petrol duty or job security. Meanwhile the unlucky few (who form the minority who will not marry) are obliged to pay for this. They will feel it. More importantly, they fill feel it where it hurts more than their pockets. They will feel it in their pride and self-respect. It will compound the insecurity they harbour about their big bottom or crooked nose. They will feel once more that the world of small boned fashionistas flaunting their perfect weddings in Hello Magazine has just added another pinch to the daily beating that life throws at the ordinary and insecure and dowdy. It is, in short a pointlessly cruel policy.
The Real Reason:
Of course, I am no sage. I am not the only person who can look at the evidence underpinning the Ugly Tax and find that it is threadbare. The people who want to introduce it know this too. So why do it?
The answer is simply that in a democracy there are elections and where there are elections there are people who will look to cynically bribe the electorate. The Majority of British People are either Married or want to marry at some stage in the future. Consequently the Ugly Tax is a bribe to the worst instincts of votes. A tax cut that costs nothing because the burden is not found by economies in government but by economies wrought by the unfortunate.
It is unlikely to win many votes, but it is chaff and chaff has cumulative political value. Families hard pressed by rises in tax and periods of joblessness can be promised that “These are things we have done for you.” Followed by a list of which the Ugly Tax is just a part.
Just as no one has ever opted to get married on the basis of the Ugly Tax, I would speculate that precious few have spent their vote on it either. But people have spent their votes on the basis of perceptions that one party or the other is on their side, and the Ugly Tax adds another fold in the blue rosette. One group stand to benefit in tangible terms from the Ugly Tax and it is not married couples. The people who benefit are Conservative Party strategists, activists and MP’s. Whatever its merits as a policy (and these are miniscule even to the intended recipient), they give Conservatives something to crow about on doorsteps. That is the real reason for the reintroduction of the Ugly Tax.
The Ugly Tax is not the only illiberal, unfair, ineffective and statist policy brought in by a government and it is not the most important. Once implemented it will change no lives for the better and the people it hurts will cope. Its failings are easily pointed out because it is conceived from ideological and electoral self-interest rather than out of any genuine concern to encourage or improve moral decency in Britain. But worse than all of this, it is conceived out of the worst aspect of democracy imaginable, hypocrisy. There is nothing more despicable in a democracy than a politician preaching high-minded morals for no benefit beyond narrow, cynical electoral gain and there is no grubbier way of doing it than to offer what amounts to a bribe.
I am not a campaigner by nature. I prefer where possible to view life from the fence, but I beseech you all to rise up in revolt at this disreputable and ugly policy which hurts the unfortunate and benefits only the campaign strategists. Reject the Ugly Tax!
- Clegg: Marriage tax break ‘unfair’ (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
- Why Tories should be wary of giving tax breaks to married couples | Melissa Kite (guardian.co.uk)
- Why Tories should be wary of giving tax breaks to married couples | Melissa Kite (realnewsnow.com)
- The married tax break is illiberal, misguided and dangerous. (giornoletterarossa.wordpress.com)
- Why a married couples’ tax allowance could be deadly for the Tories (newstatesman.com)
- Cameron faces Tory ambush over tax breaks for married couples (thetimes.co.uk)
- Clegg: Marriage tax break ‘unfair’ (standard.co.uk)
- Tory marriage tax break is unfair on widows and single parents, says Nick Clegg (express.co.uk)
- TurboTax – 7 Tax Advantages of Getting Married (turbotax.intuit.com)