Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tax "Justice", revisited

Richard Murphy was good enough to respond to my observations on the Tax "Justice" phenomenon. He addressed the three points in order and I will do the same here. As in my original post, I try to concentrate on the argument and not the person. I ask any commenters to do the same. 

"Perspective on whose money it is"

As Tim Worstall has commented, the rebuttal to my first point was eye-opening.  Murphy chose to mount a rousing defence of the concept of a state as part of his answer. I'm not sure why he did this because my point was about the mindset of those who propagate notions of "Tax Justice" but the argument was interesting, nevertheless.

The key passage is this:  (my formatting)

This system also corrects the very obvious failings of the market system. That system could not ever provide a socially optimal outcome in any society in reality because so many of the pre-conditions of it doing so do not exist. Those that do not exist include:

  • Perfect knowledge of the future;

  • Perfect knowledge of all products and services available in the market now, and their prices; ...

I could add many more, all of which are required[1] to make markets produce successful outcomes and the absence of any one of which will result in an imperfect result. The degree of imperfection cannot be predicted, but will tend towards monopoly exploitation[2]. This is why the State must intervene to protect those whom the market would otherwise both fail and exploit.[3]

Taking the highlighted points in turn, (1) is probably the most problematic. Murphy confuses sufficient conditions with necessary conditions and so has set up a straw-man (seemingly unwittingly).  Unlike Murphy, I am not a trained economist. But I am a trained mathematician; the difference between "necessary" and "sufficient" tends to be quite important.

He then makes an unsupported claim (2) about what bad things might happen in the absence of one of the sufficient conditions and then, inexplicably, claims (3) that the solution to imperfect knowledge is to create an institution which cannot hope to accumulate the missing information.

"Is poverty created - or escaped from?"

Apart from reiterating his flawed understanding of economic theory, Murphy doesn't really address the substance of my core argument (that poverty isn't created; wealth is) and so there's not much more I can write on this one

"Anyone who disagrees is greedy"

Murphy's response to this is to assert:

The first is that the whole basis of mainstream economic thinking is that greed is both acceptable and desirable. This is what the maximisation of self interest that it promotes means, at least to many who seem to simplistically buy into this economic vision.

This is, of course, a very cleverly-constructed straw-man. He chooses a narrow definition of "self-interest" and then suggests that it is my definition. 

Quite apart from the fact that it isn't my opinion, it doesn't really address the point.

When it comes to taxes, there are three cases:

  • You are unambiguously liable to a particular tax
  • You are unambiguously not liable
  • There is doubt about whether you are liable or there is a divergence between the law-as-written and the supposed intent of those who wrote it

Clearly, most (all, I hope!) of us agree that we should pay demands that fall into the first category and I'm sure not even Murphy pays demands that fall into the second. So the only point of disagreement is the third.

Now, if you do not believe government does a good job of spending money, it is illogical voluntarily to pay more than is required (and let's be clear, that's what is being asked of us; if it wasn't voluntary, there would be no debate as it would fall into the first category!) This does not make one greedy.

So, I am grateful for Murphy's response (truly - even faulty arguments can force one to clarify one's thinking) but I'm not convinced he's supported his assertions.

No comments: