Agony uncle: ‘My friend thinks she is an ethical tax dodger’

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle

Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: My friend runs a much-loved crafts shop. There’s a sign in the window which says: ‘We pay our taxes – unlike Amazon!’ But recently I worked a shift for her in the shop and my friend said I should encourage customers to pay by cash. When I asked why she said that card transactions were automatically recorded on the bank statements which go to her accountant, but that when people paid by cash she could be more flexible with the income she declared for tax purposes. ‘It only gets spent on wars and dodgy contracts for the government’s mates,’ she added. But it feels hypocritical, and I want to tell her I don’t agree. I know it’s not on the same scale – she doesn’t even make much money from the shop – but surely there’s no such thing as ethical tax-dodging?

Confused of South London

A: When you’ve dispensed as much fine wisdom as I have, dilemmas start to present themselves as easily solvable. Worried about cultural appropriation? Queasy about slum tourism? Doubting the value of activism? Agony Uncle has a prescription. But I have to say, this letter floored me. My instinct is that what your friend is doing is wrong, but almost every path that I followed came up against a wall.

Moral philosophy has never really helped anyone in the real world, so it’s a sign of my desperation that I turned to it. A ‘consequentialist’ approach turns on the results of a given moral act. In this case, the negative real-world consequences are almost nil: it sounds like your friend is depriving the taxpayer of small change – though, for her, it might well be a meaningful amount saved. In a society wracked by a ‘cost of living’ crisis, overseen by a negligent state, this kind of small-scale tax dodging could be defended as self-survival.

A ‘deontologist’ would focus on the rules and obligations at play. But has the moral force of the UK state, with its demand that we pay our taxes, waned in recent years given all its incompetence and corruption? Perhaps. Hypocrisy – and, more still, dishonesty – seems like an easier charge: your friend is clearly guilty of the ethical violation of which she is accusing Amazon. But if your friend tweaked her sign so it said, ‘Support local business instead of Amazon!’ would her behaviour suddenly become permissible?

I think the problem we have here is that neoliberalism has made us so – justifiably – cynical about the value of doing the right thing. Successive generations have now grown up in societies that are grossly unfair by design. We are inured to headlines about household-name corporations paying virtually no corporation tax, while the British government forces through tax rises on working people. In the post-pandemic environment, as an insightful article in The Economist recently argued, we’re left with the worst of all worlds: ‘paying European taxes for services as skimpy as those in America’.

The arguments against your friend’s behaviour seem to boil down to two things. Firstly, she is just wrong about something. Dodgy contracts and wars are not all the state spends its money on. It is still the case that more goes on important things like welfare, healthcare and social care, even if the quality of those services is declining. But, more than that, I think the problem with your friend’s behaviour is that psychologically-speaking, it is Thatcherite. She is acting as if there is no such thing as society. It’s an individualist, selfish revolt, which doesn’t prefigure a better world, but affirms that there is no alternative to ‘me first’. We have to believe otherwise.

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