Tax is the natural frontier for general election debate

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The Observer's main editorial today is headlined:

On tax, our politicians are just too cowardly

I promise that as the author of The Courageous State who specialises in writing on tax more than anything else I did not write this headline, although I agree with it. I also agree with the conclusion, which was:

The slimmer the majority, the louder spin doctors' warnings ring in our leaders' ears and the greater the inclination to tell the public they can have their cake and eat it on the NHS and care. We shouldn't have to rely on secret recordings to learn what politicians really think about tax. But we may have to for some time yet.

It's my belief that tax  should be the key issue at the heart of debate in the next general election campaign. In saying so I am not referring to peripheral issues like the mansion tax or the 50p tax rate. These, candidly, make little difference to our overall tax system, however much heat they generate. Nor do I think  the debate should  be dominated by any of the camps that are identified by the Observer,  such as the economists who discuss disincentive effects, spin doctors who only consider the impact on focus groups, technocrats who only discuss how to beat evasion (to which group, on occasion,  it might be suggested that I subscribe),  or even philosophers who discuss the fair imposition of the overall tax take.  Each of these proposes far too narrow a focus  by themselves.

Instead, I think that the general election debate should be about the nature of the society that we want.  To put it very bluntly, but entirely fairly,  do we want to live in a society where we are indifferent to the needs of others and are willing to abandon our commitment to them to the point where some live in hunger, despair, deprivation and even pain because we are not willing to contribute to their well-being or do we instead wish to live in a society where care for each other is our paramount concern, not just for the selfish reason that we have no idea in what situation we might find ourselves in the future, but because it is simply the right thing to empathise with others who  at this point in time  do not enjoy the best of fortune for whatever the reason?

The first of these options will, undoubtedly, be on the general election agenda. It is my wish that the  alternative is as well. If that happens then the nature of the tax system is the natural frontier on  which debate should take place.  If it isn't  then, in itself, the general election will fail to address the issues that this country really faces at this time.

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