Earlier this week, a group of wealthy Americans sent an open letter to the 2020 US presidential candidates calling for greater taxes on those who, like themselves, are in the top 1 per cent of the world’s rich list.
One of the signatories to the letter, Liesel Pritzker Simmons told the BBC: "It's time for us who are blessed with unusual financial success or luck to contribute more to our common good and common future…The best way that we in this fortunate bubble can contribute is that we want to be taxed more."
It’s not often that folk voluntarily suggest that the government takes more of their money. However, Ms Simmons language of ‘blessing’ suggests a religious motivation for her action which begs the question: should we, as Christians, be supporting this kind of wealth tax?
Of course, this question also arises at a time when both Tory leadership contenders are promising, in different ways, tax cuts for the wealthy. Boris Johnson has indicated he would move the threshold for the highest rate of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000 and Jeremy Hunt has promised a drastic reduction in corporation tax which will benefit wealthy business owners.
Whether or not we should increase taxes on the wealthy depends on what we think the purpose of tax is. Of course, the negative view is that it’s a way in which the government steals our hard-earned money, but if we look at the New Testament we find a completely different attitude.
In Matthew 17:24, there’s an interesting story where Jesus is asked whether or not he pays the annual temple tax. Jesus responds by effectively pointing out that because he owns everything, he is, as the Son of God, exempt. However, he goes on to indicate that he will pay the tax “so that we may not cause offense” (Matt 17:27). Similarly, in Romans 13:7, Paul tell us to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue.”
What is remarkable about both these passages is that the authorities to which they were paying the taxes were both thoroughly corrupt, and using the taxes for corrupt purposes. And yet, still their message is that we should pay. Why is this the case?
There are many possible explanations, but I think part of the answer is that both Jesus and Paul recognised the role of tax paying as an expression of the virtue of community that reflects the very character of God. If none of us paid tax there would be little, if any, public services: no roads, no bridges, no street lighting, no universal education or healthcare, no security or legal system to name just a few. In other words, all the things that the whole community benefits from, but that cannot be afforded individually are paid for by our taxes. This was true in 1st Century Palestine and it is still true today. Paying our taxes is a way of saying we are not just individuals; we are community. We do not just live for ourselves; we live for the common good, for one another.
And that is why Church Action for Tax Justice is very much in support of a wealth tax. Such a tax would not only provide more needed funds for public services – like nurses, teachers and police officers – but would also help address the poverty and inequality that plagues both the UK and the world.
A good friend of mine with a serious mental health condition following years of abuse was recently told that the waiting list for the therapy she required was two years! This is simply not fair, and paying more tax is part of the way to address such issues.
Of course, the argument from others is that if we tax the wealthy then they will all just leave the UK and our economy will suffer, but that is not true. There are many countries in Europe with much higher individual and corporation tax rates than the UK, and yet their economies are growing at a faster or equivalent rate to our own. France, Germany and some Scandinavian countries fall into this category. Higher taxes for the wealthy do not hinder economic growth. What they can do is help address inequality and poverty.
And so in association with Fair Tax Mark, Church Action for Tax Justice will be spending Fair Tax Week (6-14 July) and Tax Justice Sunday (7 July) celebrating and applauding those businesses that recognise their community responsibilities. We hope you can join us in this.
Dr Justin Thacker is National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice