How do we break our addiction to public spending?

Whilst watching one of the many protests against spending cuts outside Leinster House recently, I noticed a placard that demanded “Rights not charity”. This slogan fascinated me, because I was very curious as to what the elongated message behind it was: Given that the demonstration was against proposed spending cuts, it is reasonable to assume that it was declaring a right to receive money from the taxpayer. But curiously, it also declared “not charity”.

What did that mean? Could it be (and I’m ready to be corrected) that the protestor demanded a right to other people’s money? Would a more informative (although shockingly long winded) sign have read “I have a greater right to other people’s money than they have to decide what to spend it on”?

Indeed, to understand how a spending issue works in Ireland, you have to understand one key issue. Irish society is divided into people who get stuff from politicians, politicians, and people who pay taxes to politicians. It is of course possible to be a member of all three groups simultaneously (a point Mitt Romney failed to grasp with his 47% comment) but most people tend to view themselves predominantly (and sometimes wrongly) in just one. Where politics is breaking down is that the two non-politician groups have been told for years by politicians that they, separately, would be given priority. Now that we have no money and need to raise taxes just to keep what we have, there’s war, and politicians are getting it from both sides who don’t really give a toss about the other group.

I used to have great sympathy for politicians trying to square the circle of infinite demand versus finite resources, but not anymore. Having seen Fine Gael and Labour lie to voters in 2011, and now watching Fianna Fail trying to sneakily hint that it would reverse cuts in public spending (just look at the stream of spending promise press releases that emerge daily from FF TDs. Please try and tell me they have all been costed by Michael McGrath) the fact is that most politicians deserve every ounce of crap they get from the public over this.

It is their own fault, because our elected leaders are either too dishonest to want to confront the reality, or, and this is the more frightening of the two options, too dumb to realise it. The beating heart at the core of the problem is that taxes must be paid by someone in order to provide services, and that the magical solution, confiscating the wealth from the rich, is no more sustainable than chopping up your furniture to provide firewood.

If our leaders are serious (and that is a question in itself) they need to link taxes and spending in the eyes of the voter, and give the power to raise taxes to fund spending to the voters themselves.

They could start by requiring the property tax be approved at county level by referendum after councillors publish an agreed list of cuts to be made to local services if voters decide not to impose a property tax upon themselves. Such an option would be highly controversial, and the hard left in particular will advocate boycotts. In addition, county councillors will (incredibly) object to their being required to make such decisions. But what such a course of action will do will be to turn the issue into a live issue for voters, with, and this is important, a very clear and decisive democratic outcome. The people will be confronted with reality: pay more for services, or don’t. Their choice, with a pencil in their hands and a ballot paper in front of them.

What if they refuse to vote? What if they say that they are not being given a left wing option of taxing businesses or placing a higher property tax on the wealthy, and putting that to the people of the county. Personally, I’d have no problem if a left wing majority county council decided to make such a proposal, but I doubt it will ever happen, because Irish people hate taxes, and rarely vote for people in favour of them. Why, even our hard left campaign against them.

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