Tax isn't love, it's resentment

Rather than embracing tax like a beloved cuddly toy, we should pay it kicking and screaming and we'll be the better for it if we do.

The internet throughout New Zealand seems to be buzzing with the possibility that taxpayers can be persuaded to feel positive about paying tax. Not just positive, downright giddy.

It all kicked off last year when economist and Sunday Star Times columnist Shamubeel Eaqub wrote that “tax is love.” The formulation has morphed into a battle-cry, inspiring a series of articles and think-pieces at The Spinoff – some sponsored by the Inland Revenue Department.

 Outside the few hundred objectivists in this country, I think we can all agree that taxation is essential to maintaining a modern civilisation. Without tax, there can be no state. And the state has a natural and indispensable function in securing the common good. So without tax, life would be Hell.

 But does that mean there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have a song in your heart when paying provisional tax? Hardly. Resenting the taxman doesn’t make you morally inferior. It makes you human.

 In our house, we regularly serve broccoli to our sons. Our oldest really hates it because of its bitter taste. But that has to be balanced against all the fibre, vitamins, potassium and other health-promoting agents packed into those small, green, flowery heads. So the rule is that he has to eat some minimal amount of the stuff.

 Of course, we don’t insist that he actually like it. We’ve never tried to browbeat him into enjoying broccoli because “broccoli is love.” We’re not that controlling and he’s not that dumb.

Nor was Barack Obama, when he was president. Under his watch, there were increases in income taxes, capital gains taxes and payroll taxes, among others. If you measure success by tax hikes, you would have to say he did pretty well.

But Obama was usually very careful to point out that he understood how annoying tax was. His remarks on taxation would often be prefaced by some comment about how personally grumpy writing a cheque to the IRS made him. For the former president, tax was not love – it was a duty arising from his sense of fairness.

I would go so far as to say that, while taxation is necessity to maintain a free and fair society, so too is resenting the payment of tax. It is no coincidence that so many essential advances for the rule of law were kicked off by tax begrudgement. There are way too many examples to recount, but here are a few. 

In the early twelfth century, England was broke. King John’s instinct was to tax his way out of poverty. Having already been imposed upon extensively, neither the barons nor the Church were keen on the idea. Rebellion followed and one of the results of that was the Magna Carta, an ancient charter of liberties that placed a number of fetters on the Crown’s power to tax.

Now jump forward a few centuries to King Charles I. He also very keen on more taxation. But when John Hampton and others resisted him, the tension boiled over into civil war. It ended with the execution of Charles – and the beginning of the end for the divine rights of kings.

One-man rule continued, of course, with England soon under the heel of the dictator Oliver Cromwell. But when he attempted to impose taxes by decree in 1654, he was met with the refusal of a merchant named George Cony. Cromwell imprisoned both Cony and his lawyers, in a case that exposed the true nature of his regime.

Probably the most famous example was the American Revolution. One of the milestones in that event was the Boston Tea Party, which was all about hatred of tax. Of course, that is probably not the most persuasive example, because there’s a lot of snooty anti-Americanism about these days.

But one person who wasn’t reflexively snippy about Americans was the great Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke. Here's how journalist and historian James Cowan described an incident in the Northern War, during which Heke defied the Crown over customs duties:

"On the 10th January, 1845, the flagstaff was cut down a second time. On the preceding day Heke had visited the Acting-Consul for the United States, a storekeeper named Henry Green Smith, at Wahapu; this trader had recently replaced one Captain William Mayhew, who had been Acting-Consul since 1840. Mayhew had helped to instill into the minds of Pomare and Heke a dislike to the British flag, consequent on the imposition of Customs duties. From him and other Americans the discontented chief had heard of the successful revolt of the American colonies against England, and the lesson was not forgotten ; he burned to do likewise. From Smith he obtained an American ensign, and paddled on to Kororareka ; and when the flagstaff fell to a Ngapuhi axe for a second time up went the foreign colour on the carved sternpost of Heke's war-canoe. The warrior crew paraded the harbour, their kai-hauta, or fugleman, yelling a battle-song, Heke at the steering-paddle, the American flag over his head."

None of these people were apostles of Ayn Rand, but they all resented paying more than they thought they should have to. Perhaps if we had Twitter back then, with journalists tweeting out about how tax is love, all of these flashpoints could have been avoided.  But I kind of doubt it.

Most of us work really hard and take on a lot of stress to earn a living. It will never feel great to see a large share of it pass out of our control. We all have things we would rather do with that money.

And that’s why, for example, individual spending scandals will always stick in our craw. It doesn't matter how small it is in the scheme of things. When the Crown takes such a big share of what you had to struggle so hard to earn, how can it not be frustrating to read about a government department spending $70,000 on a sign?

Are you really supposed to comfort yourself with thoughts about much love that wasteful sign represents?

That being said, and speaking as somebody who believes in moderate taxation, I can only encourage the “tax is love” theme. Please. I mean it. Don’t let me stop you.