Competing political principles and ideologies have brought us to crossroads. The camps we broadly conceive as the left and the right appear to be more divided than ever before, with the centre often seeking to find a working compromise or appearing as a moderate version of one of the aforementioned tribes. Our socio-political landscape reflects a conflict of norms that has been around throughout the history of the modern world, if not before. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to this conflict as the struggle between the mainstream forces of liberalism, conservatism and socialism (fringe ideologies will not be covered by this article). The combatants wage their struggle by rigorously advocating their respective perceptions of what balance should be struck between the political ideas above. Some theories are an amalgamation of these ideologies; other are hostile to one or even two of them. The centre has tried to bridge the gap, but often fails to achieve concrete results. Their task is not an easy one, as the nuances of each idea are seemingly incompatible with each other. For instance, how could you implement a socialist call to redistribute wealth whilst respecting the liberal right to property? This article will argue that efforts to bridge the gap between these ideologies need to be more creative, as thinking inside our established political boxes will not accomplish this. We need to move beyond a working compromise by going back to the drawing board. In this article, I will advocate my own suggestion for how the political divide could be bridged. Ironically, this theory for the future was inspired by my academic studies of the past. I will first set out the dilemma that this new theory seeks to solve, before giving some context on what inspired my rather haphazard attempt at writing the next Das Kapital. Finally, I will outline my preliminary conception of this new theory, with specific attention being devoted to how it incorporates the best of the ideas above.
The Great British Dilemma
Firstly, the great dilemma facing our society will be outlined. It is very much similar to the scenario I posited in my introduction: the tension between wealth inequality and individual liberty. Turning first to wealth inequality, the impact of austerity on our society has been keenly felt. The Office for National Statistics has revealed that between the 2010/2011 financial year and the 2019/2020 financial year, the income share of the wealthiest 1% in the United Kingdom increased from 7% to 8.3%. The S80/20 ratio, the ratio of the total income received by the richest 20% of people compared to that of the poorest 20%, increased from 5.3 to 6.2 during the same period. This is the highest level reached since the 2008 financial crash. The findings of an advisor to the IMF’s Research Department, Prakash Loungani, have shown a clear connection between austerity and wealth inequality. In an IMF study of countries that implemented austerity measures between 1978 and 2009, there were “significant increases in inequality, a decline in the share of income going to labour, and higher long-term unemployment”. Even if austerity achieved what it set out to do in the UK context, namely reducing the deficit, the pandemic has undone the progress made.
Cutting expenditure is evidently at odds with the socialist idea of wealth redistribution. So, what’s the alternative for achieving this re-distribution? Naturally, it’s to raise income by taxing wealthy individuals and corporations. But this is far easier said than done. One might object by claiming that these proposed measures are violations of personal liberty and the spirit of free enterprise, but the practical implications are of concern too. The leak of the Panama Papers in 2016 revealed the true extent of how much taxation was being lost because of wealthy individuals’ offshore entities. In 2019, the corporate tax haven index revealed that British territories and dependencies made up 4 of the 10 largest centres of corporate tax avoidance. Even if only some of these individuals and companies left the country following increases in taxation, the almost-certain increase of tax avoidance would complete the shortfall. As one loophole in restrictions gets closed another gets found, in a never-ending game of ‘Whac-A-mole’. We might even see more individuals and companies crossing the threshold from avoidance to evasion. Moderate tax increases could exacerbate the problems highlighted by the Panama Papers, and anything greater may lead to the feared exodus of individuals and business out of the United Kingdom.
Fixing the Present by Looking to the Past
The Great British dilemma therefore asks how you can reduce wealth inequality without violating liberty and the law of diminishing returns. I may have found a solution. At this stage, I would like to point out that this solution almost certainly has flaws and there will be people who hate it because of these flaws. It is a sketch, not a blueprint. This idea came to me when I was remembering my undergraduate studies of Byzantine history. Byzantine elites used to visit the Emperor in Constantinople to pay sums of money in exchange for honours and administrative positions that conferred tremendous social status. Accounts of these conferral ceremonies are fascinating to read, as they depict opulent scenes which must have been breath-taking to witness. The idea of elites willingly paying money to the state may seem strange to us nowadays, but I believe there’s a lesson to be learned from this Byzantine example. It brought to mind the Dale Carnegie quote which prefixed my previous article:
“There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”
The Byzantine elites paid these sums because they wanted what was offered in exchange for them. This is at the heart of my new political theory: to get resources out of wealthy individuals and corporations, you need to give them something that they want. If you simply try to take it, they’ll resist.
How to Tax Wealthy Individuals and Companies
All of this begs the question: what do wealthy individuals and corporations want? Some might assume not much. But being a student in St Andrews for five years has taught me a lot about people. Why do some of the wealthier students insist on buying the most expensive tickets for every event? Why do they buy multiple champagne bottles at balls? Why are they obsessed with private clubs? I believe it’s because they are after the same thing that those Byzantine nobles were after: social status. When you have it all what else is there to strive for? The Byzantine system commoditised social status, and we should consider doing the same. This new way of thinking that I am toying with requires an affirmative answer to this question: Is it acceptable to narrow wealth inequality by making already-existent social inequality official? I believe that this can be acceptable because it advances the socialist desire to redistribute wealth whilst respecting liberal ideas about individual rights. But it needs to be done in the right way; I am certainly not proposing that we return to a pre-modern society. How, then, can social status be commoditised without this commoditisation making it undesirable? Socialist and liberal aspects of this theory have been touched on, but there is also a role for institutions that are traditionally regarded as conservative. The United Kingdom has an honours system and a monarchy which could be drawn upon. The top level of income taxation currently stands at 45%. Perhaps opting into a higher rate at 50% could confer honours such as a knighthood. Perhaps 55% could get you a lordship title and invitations to state banquets. In this way, our national traditions would play a new and meaningful role in the modern world. The social perks that could result from these opt-ins are yet to be fully fleshed out, but it is the principle of it that is currently under consideration. If there are economic perks such as reductions in other areas of taxation, these would be calculated to be below the funds raised from the opt-in, with the social perks acting to turn a maybe into a yes.
The corporate dimension would work according to a similar ethos. Ultimately, the goal of corporations is to provide goods or services, in order to turn a profit and benefit their shareholders. Because of this goal, raising corporation tax can lead to the issues discussed above. Indeed, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition demonstrated that lowering it can actually increase government income. So how do you get them to pay more corporation tax? In this instance, there would be perks which are more economic in nature. Opting into higher rates of corporation tax could grant companies greater access to the more lucrative contracts on offer from the government. The energy, railway and defence industries are potential areas in which this could be tested. There may be other requirements which address corporate leadership practices. The key is finding a way to ensure that, despite these measures, the contract is still profitable for the company involved. But once again, social gravitas will be a deciding factor. Over the past decade, corporations have increasingly recognised the power of committing to social and environmental causes. Committing to an opt-in would not only provide access to lucrative contracts, but would also demonstrate that the company in question is committed to social progression. This may in turn create more interest from consumers and investors, as both groups are paying ever-greater attention to companies’ CSR (Corporate and Social Responsibility) policies. Public attitudes towards social progression may also compel wealthy individuals, particularly celebrities, to opt into higher income tax brackets. The funds raised from the individual and corporate opt-ins would be ring-fenced and committed towards areas of spending such as welfare and social mobility initiatives. Over time, greater opportunities would be available to the less fortunate in our society who could experience better standards of living than would otherwise have been the case. The ideas I have set out are not intended to solve the sweeping issues they address, but they could help us move closer towards doing so.
You may have found some flaws while reading this article or you may even think I’ve completely lost the plot. If either are true, feel free to share your thoughts with me and I’ll happily talk with you about how this theory should be refined or further developed. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or even write an article for The Liberty Club in response to this one. If my studies in History have taught me one thing, it’s that theories rarely produce the results that their advocates would have liked. But the aim of this article was to try and approach our contemporary problems from a new angle, because I’m increasingly convinced that our solutions to these problems won’t come from conventional ways of thinking.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the views of The Liberty Club
Household income inequality, UK: financial year ending 2020 – Office for National Statistics
‘Austerity’ and Inequality: Is there a Link? – Prakash Loungani
Panama Papers Q&A: What is the scandal about? – BBC News
UK and territories are ‘greatest enabler’ of tax avoidance, study says – The Guardian