Originally published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 18th April 2016.
There’s an old saying that the two most interesting subjects in the world are your own money, and other people’s sex lives. It’s a dated observation, because in the modern age, other people’s money, how much they have, and how they spend it or hide it, is just as fascinating. Amidst all the roaring and shouting about the Panama Papers and David Cameron’s tax affairs and the jaw dropping revelation that the leader of the Tories is quite comfortable there was a nugget of truth worth considering.
Politics would probably benefit if everybody’s, yes, everybody’s, income and tax paid was online for all to see.
I’ll just pause here to let you explode in anger, as the great majority of Irish people no doubt will on reading such a preposterous downright dirty red communist proposition.
Outrageous? Possibly. Infringement of privacy? Definitely. But think about the transformative effect it would have on politics. And not the way you think either. See, people assume that it would be the left that would benefit, revealing the vast bounties been taken home by the nation’s evil moustache-twirling boss class. Yeah, some businesspeople would be revealed to be making serious bread. But so would the heads of various NGOs and yes, poverty-focussed charities and trades unions too. Would getting that information clearly into the public domain, by law, really be such a terrible thing?
But the big reveal would be something that the centre-right have been saying for years and that nobody believes. That the rich actually pay large amounts of filthy lucre in tax, and it would be there, in black and white, for all to see.
Yes, you’d see that certain individuals are claiming the privilege of an Irish passport whilst paying little into the national coffers, but it’s a good thing to know that. For too often it’s been very easy for the alphabet left to paint the country with two super-broad strokes: the rich, and the rest of us. This would highlight a very awkward (for them) point: that a large tranche of the rich, the well-off and the comfortable are not jet-setting calendar-counting avoidance aficionados but people who do pay large amounts of money in tax. People who, and you don’t hear this often, despite being worth a few bob are just as irritated as Comrade Murphy TD at tax avoidance by their financial betters. They’re irritated because unlike the far left, they actually press the online banking send button every October which puts large amounts of their hard earned cash into the lip licking maw of the Revenue. After all, they never stop complaining that they pay ridiculous amounts in tax anyway, so why not let their fellow citizens verify for themselves, and see that it is the actual truth?
It’s true that you can point an accusing finger at a successful businessman who is paying himself a very tasty salary. But when, right beside that salary column will be the huge ball of cash he’s putting into the social welfare and health and education system, the pointed finger loses some of its accusatory power. And if he’s only paying a suspiciously low fraction in tax, then this becomes an annual media and public-led opportunity for the voters and opposition to savage the government on tax avoidance. Every single year.
It’s not just the tax-paying high earners who could benefit, or indeed the reveal of their contribution to society being something the hard left should worry about. Wait until the ordinary PAYE workers see not how much their neighbours pay, but more often the fact that many pay little or nothing. There’s nothing more likely to turn your ordinary working joe into a raving Thatcherite than the idea that he’s breaking his proverbial doing overtime to put dinner on the table whilst that mooching waster next door is wandering down to the shops in his pyjamas, on our hero’s dime. That’s what terrifies the People’s Front of Killiney: the possibility that Sean Citizen might look at Michael O’Leary’s enormous tax bill, then look at the wastrel next door, and decide he has more in common with O’Leary.
After all, don’t both of them get up out of bed in the morning and go out to pay their way in the world?
Is it practical? Probably not. There’d be war and every spurious excuse from it being a charter for axe murderers to travel the country bashing wealthy grannies to indignant pleas for the nanny state to be told to shove off and mind its own business. There’s also the ultimate Irish fear that all across the land there are Lady Mucks going around putting on airs and graces about their family status that might not be justified. All are not bad reasons not to do it. But the benefits, the breaking down of the wall between class grievance and the reality of who pays what, that can only be for the good, surely?
Perhaps, for example, we could commit to do it in, say, three years time, with a promise that nothing before that date would be revealed, giving people time to get their affairs in order, even sell off assets and the rest before nosy neighbours (or more likely, relatives) get their excited fingers onto a keyboard.
Of course, all this assumes we’d ever get it past learned colleagues down the Supreme Court…