Where now for tax justice?

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David Quentin is a tax lawyer whose thinking I admire and whose company I enjoy. There is a point in common in the two: he is challenging. These challenges can be robust in his writing: provocative, but frequently accompanied by wit and a decided charm in person. There is a candour to David that spells integrity.

David's latest blog embraces that candour. Without in any way beating about the bush he lays out in a few paragraphs the challenges that the tax justice movement might face over the next few years. As he puts it:

Tax justice in the Brexit/Trump era finds itself in an awkward position.

We have been used to critiquing the global neoliberal technocracy but that technocracy has nonetheless become the vehicle for realising certain (albeit gradual, reformist & compromised) tax policy demands oriented towards economic justice on an international level. Consider for example the OECD’s “BEPS” process for improving the fairness of corporate tax outcomes, and the EU’s Anti Tax Avoidance Directive. Both are deeply flawed, particularly insofar as concerns economic justice for the Global South, but these are definitely steps in the right direction.

He is so right, and I am aware of the paradox. I am willing to work with the OECD on country-by-country reporting and the World Bank on wealth taxes (for example) whilst knowing there are clear flaws in these organisations and some of the projects and even ideologies that they promote. And yet, as was so obvious when I was in Brno recently, where the OECD were also presenting, their current tax agenda is almost the one that John Christensen  and I wrote as 'Tax us if you can' in 2005. It's almost uncanny: I know we both pinch ourselves at the surrealness of it.

But as David points out:

And now the global hegemony of neoliberal ideology, which a year ago seemed fundamentally unassailable, is under much more serious threat, not from us and certainly not from the people of the world shaking off their chains, but from fascists like the President of the United States of America and his neo-Nazi hangers-on and home counties hard-Brexiteer hand-holders.

David portrays the conflict between the vision of tax justice proponents and those of the persuasion he describes above as one about alternative routes to capture the heart of the Courageous State - a term I used as the title of a book. And, as he makes clear, however apolitical tax justice wishes to represent itself (and within the context of much of UK politics there is a lot about tax justice that can rightly be called apolitical) there is an obvious conflict between the social views of most who promote tax justice and those from the right now promoting populist politics. As he put it:

It seems to me therefore that tax justice is at something of a crossroads: either we accept the overall direction of travel and adapt our tax policy asks accordingly, or we become a more obviously oppositional and politically teleological movement, offering tax justice as part of a global road map leading not just away from neoliberalism but towards (say) an unabashedly socialist and loudly intersectional vision of a better global future which has no borders, no structural oppressions of any kind, and an organised response to climate change.

But do people in tax justice agree with me that that is the dilemma we face? Or is the old enemy neoliberalism really every bit as entrenched as it always was, so that (for those of us with the privilege to remain focused on technocratic economic justice issues while others are fighting for their lives) the existing policy battles should simply continue as before, albeit on superficially changed terrain.

David's challenge is a timely and appropriate. It is also difficult. As I know all too well, charities have funded much of the tax justice movement: they require that the work be apolitical.  That means any such change would challenge the funding of the whole movement.

Or would it? After all, the whole essence of tax justice is about equality and the relief of poverty. These are core objectives that are accepted as charitable. In contrast the aims of many on the populist right are to quite clearly increase division, permit the concentration of wealth and to permit government that acts in the interests of a few. Tax justice is on the side of charity itself in that case. The corollary is all too obvious.

So too are the choices. David has just chosen to point out their stark significance. I suggest they go to the very heart of what society is about and who it is for. And that tax justice promotes what should always have been the right ordering of society which the neoliberal elite willingly ignored. The question is whether that argument can be sustained or not, in my opinion.