The central fallacy behind the strategy of ‘austerity’, so-called, was the assertion that the deficit had to be made up by cutting public expenditure. The policy was built on two key mistakes: that the deficit was something that mattered in itself, and that the belief that cutting public spending would make the books balance. Governments can’t cut their way out of a slump, because the very process of cutting increases the size of the hole the economy has to fill. The argument for paying off the debts incurred during the pandemic is open to the same objection: now is not the time to take money out of the economy.
There seems to be a general consensus, on both right and left, that tax rises would make our economic situation even worse. It’s generally true that tax takes money out of the economy, and that’s not what we ought to do when the economy is depressed. The same is true, of course, of cuts to public services, which are not just bad economics, but bad for well-being.
Does it follow, however, that tax rises have to be avoided? I think that has to depend on what kind of tax rises they are. One of the peculiarities of the way we’ve come to record ‘public spending’ in the accounts is the treatment of every form of expenditure as if it all had the same kind of effect on the economy. When people are taxed, money is taken out of the economy; when people receive benefits, money is put back in; and so, it seems, the two sides of the process have different effects on economic activity. If we look at the finance of benefits, however, we find that there is a direct relationship between tax and spending, and that in some cases it makes no visible difference to the performance of the economy. The National Insurance Fund, which took in £109bn in 2019, is an example. State pensions aren’t, properly speaking, a form of ‘expenditure’ at all. They’re a transfer payment: money is taken from one group of people (workers) to move to another (pensioners). If there are any economic implications of a transfer payment, it has to do with the possibility that the two groups will treat the money differently – they may have different patterns of spending and saving. However, the initial assumption has to be that, unless there are reasons to the contrary, transfer payments are economically neutral.
That implies, in turn, that there are different implications of raising different types of tax, depending on the use that the money is put to. Some tax which represents a withdrawal from the economy, and some other tax doesn’t, because the same money goes straight back in to the economy in the form of a transfer payment. The objection to raising taxation, that it will take money out of a depressed economy, only belongs to the taxation in the first category. If taxation is increased to pay for benefits, the same doesn’t apply. There may be other objections to doing that – though some of the objections, such as arguments around incentives for very highly paid people, are pretty iffy – but the effect on the economic activity overall wouldn’t be one of them.
The implication is that taxation can be used directly for redistribution without any evident damage to the economy. If, for example, we want to increase taxation to pay for the pensions, the costs of social care, benefits for disability or Child Benefit (which was developed from a combination of benefits with tax reliefs), we should be able to do that. By extension, it should also be possible to pay for some services, providing only that there is a direct equivalence between transfers (for example, wages) and the level of tax raised.
So – why don’t we do that? There are many political objections which defend established rights to property, which is at least a moral principle, even if it is one that I disagree with. By contrast, the economic arguments seem particularly thin. They are that the economy is too complex to be tampered with, and there may be unexpected effects (the argument made by Hayek); that public expenditure devalues the currency, an argument that is not applicable to transfer payments, because the amount of money they put in circulation is the same as the amount taken out; and that public expenditure needs to balance the books, which is probably wrong but doesn’t apply to transfer payments anyway.
There is one practical issue to consider, too, which is also a political obstacle: our public accounts don’t allow for it. We don’t have hypothecated taxation, which means that we can’t tie taxation to specific expenditure, and we don’t distinguish transfer payments from public expenditure used to pay for things. We can do things differently; these are conventions, and not very helpful ones. We should take transfer payments out of the public spending figures altogether, and account for them in their own right.