I’m doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival this year about the well-known subject for comedy: taxation.
It might seem rather a dry subject. And it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. In fact, you can make the argument that it is about the most important subject there is – and yet there is a dearth of media about it.
Tax is power. Whether it’s kings, emperors or governments, if they lose their tax revenue, they lose they’re power. It’s why I get grumpy when so-called anarchists – Russell Brand et al – demand that so’n’so should pay more tax. If you want to bring down the system, starve the monster – don’t feed it.
How many anarchists does it take to change a light bulb? It’s no good changing the light bulb, you’ve got to smash it.
The way we are taxed speaks volumes about that society in which we live. In the UK, taxes are taken by stealth, by force, at source and without choice (bar a vote of dubious effect every five years).
Tax permeates everything we do. It is as much a part of our lives as eating, drinking, laughing or sleeping. Whenever you’re working, there’s tax. Whenever you buy or sell anything, there’s tax. Eat and drink, there’s tax. Whenever you go the doctors, that’s funded by tax. Most leisure time involves tax. The house you live in is taxed. What activity is there, apart from breathing, that doesn’t involve tax? I know what you’re thinking. And all you are doing by that is creating future taxpayers.
People are a product of their tax systems – how they behave, how responsible they are, their values, their attitudes towards authority, their honesty even. Leaders use tax to try and make people behave in a certain way. Don’t want people to drink or smoke? Tax booze and fags. Want people to use more green energy? Give wind farms a tax break.
Peter the Great wanted to Westernise Russian society and he thought beards were old-fashioned. So he taxed them. Men had a choice: shave or pay. Those who opted to retain their beard would be given a token as proof of payment, which they would have to hang from their beard. The token read: “The beard is a superfluous burden”. Hipsters beware! The unintended consequence was that beards then became a status symbol.
You don’t just shape people the way you tax them, you shape society. Taxation is one of the few ways by which politicians really could change and improve the world – the chancellor has incredible power in that regard – although all they really seem to do is tinker around the edges.
So many of the problems we face in the West can be traced back to our systems of taxation, not least the inequality of wealth. If you have nothing, the only way you can narrow the gap between you and those at the top is by working, yet we tax labour heavily and constantly. Income tax and national insurance make up 40% of government revenue. VAT makes another 20%. Meanwhile, we subsidise asset owners via the stealth, debasement-of-money taxes that are quantitative easing, interest rate manipulation and not measuring inflation properly.
Land is the most basic wealth of all, and the largest landowners – the Queen, the Duke of Buccleuch and so on – not only see their land untaxed, they actually receive subsidy for it.
The complexity of tax systems also breeds inequality. Philip Green, Amazon and Starbucks spend money finding the loopholes, of which there are many – the tax code is ten million words, it takes 12.5 times the number of words in the Bible to explain what people in the UK should pay. The rest of us, meanwhile, don’t have the resources to do this and so pay more on a proportional basis.
The late Duke of Westminster’s land hoard will be passed to his son via the loophole that is the trust. The rest of us must pay inheritance tax.
My generation is poorer than its parents. The generation after me is poorer than mine. That is the opposite of evolution. You have to go back to the Dark Ages to find the last time that happened in this country. Why has it happened? Most things have fallen in price over the last 100 years. In 1900, a worker spent 80-90% of his earnings on food, clothing and shelter. Now he spends just 40%. The one cost that has gone up is the cost of the state and the things it provides. And we must all pay that cost through taxation.
It’s not just the world we live in today that is shaped by the way we tax it. You can make the argument that behind every great event in history there is a tax story of some kind. The birth of Christ? Mary and Joseph were on their way to pay taxes. The fall of Rome? It taxed itself to death.
Every war is funded by taxation, whether during or after the event. (If you want to end wars, end taxes.) The aim of every conquest is to take control of the tax base. Every revolution has been against excess taxation of some kind.
Taxation has shaped the entire course of history.
I think you get the point. Tax is a mightily important subject. That’s why I’m doing a show about it.
Fix tax, you fix society. If you want to change the world, change the way we’re taxed.
• Dominic Frisby is performing his show Let’s Talk About Tax at the Edinburgh Festival until 28 August.
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