Academics are Left Wing because…

Chris Bertram is professor of Social and Political Philosophy at Bristol, he tweets as @crookedfootball and blogs at Crooked Timber. In Today’s post he argues that “Squeezing the rich is good, even when it raises no money“. Essentially his argument boils down to the left’s new theory of everything – that inequality is bad.

This may, or may not be the case. But the argument that punishing the wealthy ends up hurting the poor, by shrinking the pie, is not even considered as valid. There are so many near lies, distortions and pure hate for people who do things an academic political philosopher doesn’t understand, that the article is worth looking at in more detail.

However, the feature of the discussion I want to write about is the assumption, generally taken as decisive by the commentariat, TV interviews and the like, that if such a tax would raise little or no money then that should count against it decisively. On this view taxes are an unfortunate necessity, required to finance state expenditure and to be minimized whereever possible: a tax that raises no money is therefore pointless, imposing needless pain for no benefit.

The art of taxation wrote Jean Baptiste Colbert, is “maximum pluck for minimum hiss”. The top rate of income tax has been set at 40% for a generation. The rich are willing to pay 40% in a way they’re not willing to pay 50%. Thus rich people who might have settled in England to do business, settle instead in Spain where the weather’s better, or Geneva, or Monaco. At a stroke you’ve deprived the exchequer of £100,000 because you’ve asked for another £12k. For very little extra pluck, a 50p rate probably does in the long run, see the economy smaller than it might have been, and causes a great deal of hiss. No-one is better off.

But this view is just plain wrong, for several reasons. First, in a complex society structured by all kinds of institutional rules, the idea that people have full liberal property rights in their pre-tax income is unwarranted. They participate in a co-operative venture with others in society subject to certain conditions, and those conditions include one that part of “their income” already belongs to the wider society, via the state. This point, hated by libertarians, defeats the widespread view that people are having “their money” take off them: it wasn’t theirs to start with. Though I think such an argument, with some caveats, is correct, it is a second and third consideration that I’d want to rely on here.

This view seems dangerously close to the totalitarian view that all your money is the state’s except that which they let you keep. This man is a professor of Political philosophy. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The second consideration is that inequality is deadly for democracy, and for the equal political status of citizens. Because the power and influence high earners derive from their income threatens such status equality, there is a strong public interest in constraining it, even if doing so raises no money at all. It isn’t just that the rich come to own media outlets or that politicians are swayed by their donations to parties, it is also that the prominence their cash gives them gets them listened to and taken seriously by opinion formers. Their experience matters and shapes public policy, that of an unemployed teenager in the North East doesn’t: we need to shift the balance of voice in favour of the unemployed teenager and against the City trader.

Inequality is sometimes “deadly for democracy”, because it’s often a symptom of extractive political institutions – much of Africa for EG. However that is not the case in the UK. Most people who get rich enough to pay the 45p band are not politically connected. They’re just business people. Where there is a problem, it lies in the quangocrats and state apparatchiks walking through revolving doors on huge salaries with apparently no oversight. Even worse, many of these are superannuated, (mostly labour) politicians, conducting a gramscian march through the institutions. I agree here, in the crony capitalist, and quango state, we could do with some pay restraint.

In any case, the UK is not particularly unequal. Remove London, and it’s international mega-rich, the UK is a pretty bog standard north-European welfare state whose inequality is relieved by direct transfers at least as much as it is in Germany. I fail to see how chasing the International Mega rich who choose to pay a lot of tax here, makes anyone better off.

Third, income inequality makes life worse for the rest of us in real terms. Economists are supposed to believe that utility (whatever that is) matters intrinsically and money only matters instrumentally. But right-wing economists often seem to forget this as soon as they are asked to comment on tax policy and inequality, arguing as if their theorems apply to cash and not to utility. If we’re dealing in cash terms, then a tax that makes some people worse off and nobody better off looks bad, and looks Pareto inferior. But it isn’t necessarily Pareto inferior if we focus on well-being: making some cash poorer may make some others better off, a Pareto incomparable outcome. Here’s one way how: if those on high incomes have too much, they can outbid the rest of us for goods that are intrinsically in limited supply or where supply can’t be quickly increased.

I see, he wants stuff that a political philospher would once have been able to afford, but can’t now. He seems ignorant of the fact that, in general, markets are better at relieving scarcity than making the rich poorer.

If I’m further away from being able to buy a house near to where I work, because house prices are raised in an auction I can’t compete in, then I’m worse off even if my income stays flat. Reducing the purchasing power of the wealthy is therefore good for me (unless I got hold of a house early and can earn windfall gains from the auction). And similarly for many other goods. 

I see. It’s the nice big house he can’t afford that he’s envious of, the poor dear. But house builders cannot respond to demand, because the permits to build are not being issued to cope with population growth. So prices rise. Contrast with Germany, where building is encouraged – house prices haven’t risen relative to incomes. This is a market failure which can be laid directly at the door of the state, and particularly, the left’s beloved councils. The answer is not to drag down the rich, but to ensure greater supply. And markets do this better than any other mechanism.

Unrestrained income for the wealthy also means that they can commit more of their resources to ensuring that their offspring make it to the top in the next generation, thereby harming the opportunities for the rest of society.

State education is rubbish. That is not the fault of those who can afford to escape it. But the education establishment of which Professor Bertram is part, opposes any market mechanisms which may drive up standards in state education.

I could go on and enumerate more mechanisms whereby squeezing high earners is good, even if it raises no money, but the general point should be clear. It should give Labour reasons to go on the offensive (“class war”); it certainly gives the commentariat reason to stop making their stupid talking point. They won’t, of course.

The real reason for this attitude is that the incomes of political science professors haven’t kept up with people like business owners, bankers, corporate lawyers and the like. This is pure envy by members of a profession which feels undervalued.

And it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of who the payers of the top rate of tax are: there are a number of city traders in there, sure, but the majority are business owners, many of whom will have financed their company with a mortgage, risking their house on their business. As business owners, they often have options to pay themselves in a number of ways – dividends, capital returns, income etc… prudent tax-planning is not avoidance, but this is why the 50p doesn’t raise as much as left-wing academics, who comprehend nothing but PAYE wages, think it should.

This hostility to wealth creators (whoever they are) is simply a lack of understanding, and worse, the sneering of a profession whose people were once able to afford the houses now snapped up by people involved in mere trade.

This left-wing politics of envy, so common amongst academics is pure bitterness from a profession which no longer commands the respect (and money) they think they’re due.

It doesn’t help the poor to tax the rich so much they seek means to pay less tax. For the means by which the rich pay less tax shrink the pie for everyone.

The reason Marxism is doomed to end up murderously totalitarian is that everyone imagines themselves as the planner, not the man condemned to the salt mines to fulfil the plan. The professor of Political Philosophy at Bristol university has not grasped this simple point.

13 replies
  1. Longrider
    Longrider says:

    Something else this cretin seems to have forgotten is that come the great Marxist revolution, the academics are usually first against the wall. In this case, not entirely undeserved…

  2. Ben
    Ben says:

    Well as I commented at that place:

    "And my teeth? Do my teeth belong to the collective?"

    My labour is mine, and if I trade it for money the money is mine.

    It's one thing to say "the government has done things for you, common defence and so on, which you have benefitted from. So you owe the government a fair contribution." That's fine. I might quibble about how much is fair. Clearly those earning more have benefitted more from the rule of law, so should pay more, but how much is fair? We can talk about that.

    But saying you own my labour – even part of it – is a very different thing. Quantitatively it might amount to the same money. But qualitatively it is completely different.

    On the one hand you are saying I owe you. On the other you are saying you own me.

    The first is arguable. The second is evil.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Nothing wrong with trying to get Arabs princes / Russian beeznesmen to pay more tax surely? They're parasites.

    Increase the number of council tax bands in Chelsea, so they pay extra % for each £100k in value. Use the extra revenue to cut corporation tax in North.

  4. jerred seisyll
    jerred seisyll says:

    planning is always an attractive idea after capitalist markets have been perceived to have failed .

    planning and regulation can place
    an emphasis on quality , as oppose to quantity .

    free markets do efficiently supply , in response to demand .

    but what if demand is wrong .

    labour demanded more operations from the nhs , regardless of the cost , which was low , or worsening care standards .

    the economy is in a mess because of an over supply of global toxic financial assets .

    who legalized derivative gambling in 1986 ?
    who allowed bank mergers , dual capacity etc in 1986 ?
    who promoted de mutualisation , and off balance sheet finance of housing ?
    yes de mutualized lenders increased credit , but ultimately they couldn't fund the increase , and they all failed .

    the left , largely , have always rejected marxism .

    see Bertrand russel .

    their problem has been in figuring out how to defeat Thatcherism .

    you may , or may not , have found one left wing dick head .

    congrats .

    but don't flatter yourself .

    Thatcherism is long over due for the chop .

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Academics are intelligent, unlike you … Clearly. That's why right wing fascist knobs want rid if them first. The fact is the worlds resources should be shared amongst all if the worlds people, not lounge around in the bank accounts of a few. I don't care what investment bankers do all day, I guarantee the majority of the people of the world would not think it worth the money you are paid. When you play with your silly geeky toys, remember that there are are children dying if starvation all around the world. You know academics because they have something you don't have. Intelligence and lots of it. You can't buy that no matter how much money your
    Criminality earns you. You can't buy real genius like that of Newton or Einstein or all those people who are forging our futures in our universities. They are the real heroes and where our future fortune lies. Selling commodities just cannot compare.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Ownership creates no wealth at all. Simple fact that makes pretty much everything you have bothered to write a load of nonesense.

  7. Carl Peter Klapper
    Carl Peter Klapper says:

    First of all, income inequality is how the poor become rich, or at least less poor. We should not be punitively taxing the poor blockbuster author back into poverty, while not taxing the lazy heir of old wealth. I gather, though, that taxing the royals on their prodigious wealth might be suicidal for a professor at a government school. It would be illustrative of the democratizing effects of a tax on controlling wealth if the royal family had to cram themselves into an East London flat and take the tubes or walk to their government jobs.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Vote buying with others people's money
    and the inexhaustible supply of impoverished immigrants to cater to
    have given the left in the UK and USA
    an almost unassailable power base.
    Our sovereignty, our greatness are behind us.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    As an academic I can assure you that there are few professions as isolated from reality as being a college professor. Especially a tenured one.
    You have to produce little that is quantifiable, your customers are all afraid of you and you get to determine what is "correct" in your classroom without regard to anything that may be happening in the real world. That is why most of us are Left Wing.


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