Thursday 22 February 2018

'Tax the rich and stop the waste' is an illusion

It's tempting to listen to canvassers promising tax cuts, but they neglect to mention that public spending must also be cut to achieve this

A water charge protest in Tralee last year. Photo: Domnick Walsh
A water charge protest in Tralee last year. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

In the early years of the 18th Century, the colony of Virginia enjoyed an electoral franchise more extensive than in most parts of Europe at the time. More than half of (white) adult males could vote, and they voted for popular candidates who made attractive promises. This brought the Lieutenant Governor, one Alexander Spotswood, an appointee of the Crown, into regular conflict with the elected assembly, notably on the matter of balancing the latter's expenditure ambitions with an unwillingness to impose taxes.

Spotswood opined: "The mob of this country, finding themselves able to carry whom they please, have generally chosen representatives of their own class, who as their principal recommendation have declared their resolution to raise no tax on the people, let the occasion be what it will."

Spotswood got fired, but democracies remain as vulnerable as ever to populist surges. It is easy to garner votes through promising low taxes and difficult to secure popularity through the reduction of expenditure. Since both government and media appear to have concluded that Ireland has solved its budgetary problems, the pre-election auction is already under way. The electorate is about to be serenaded with promises of reductions in taxes from right, left and centre of the political spectrum. There will be no mention of reductions in current spending. That noise you hear in the background is the public capital programme revving up for another merry jaunt off the balance sheet.

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