Reinventing a tax philosophy to give it new meaning
Taxation is a topic of the utmost importance. Beyond the technical and legal aspects that it encompasses, it concerns the organization of societal life, the role of social ties and furthermore the sustainability of our local or national political institutions.
Over the past 40 years our societies have been undergoing a veritable metamorphosis under the impact of globalisation which combined with the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks resulted in a transformation of our economic and political models and ultimately a silent revolution. We are currently facing other shocks that contribute to this silent revolution and which will require considerable financial resources in order to be dealt with. Firstly, this involves the demographic shock that will have major consequences in terms of public services, the effects of which can already be seen. Bear in mind that the world’s population will reach 10 billion in 2050 and that the urban population which accounted for 30% in 1950 will then represent nearly 70%. It also involves matters related to health, security, education and environmental protection, as well as the fight against poverty and the growing social divide.
Moreover, economic growth requires that smart territories both urban and rural be multiplied. The digital economy that is already, or nearly, ubiquitous will become even more so in the future. At the same time, task automation, robotisation and artificial intelligence are driving forward a phenomenon that is taking a completely new shape. Unlike in the past it no longer concerns only manual labour but now encompasses intellectual professions. It is estimated that around 57% of jobs could be destroyed in OECD countries by 2020 and an even higher percentage in emerging or developing countries. Regardless of whether they will be replaced by other jobs, there is no question that the world is taking on another form.
Better yet, the combination of trade liberalisation, globalisation and the digital economy is at the origin, as we know, of the substantial growth in tax evasion and at a time when financial needs are and will become increasingly important.
Taxes are being profoundly undermined – we raised this issue on several occasions in previous editions1 of this review – eventually leading to the risk that numerous States which depend on taxes may be unable to provide their own functions.
This is why it appears so urgent to redefine both the meaning and conditions of taxation in order for it to be considered as fair. It cannot not apply to today’s society comprised of people who think they believe in solidarity until these people actually believe that justice and equality are reality, and primarily the justice and equality of taxation. At the same time, these notions constitute a major challenge that is particularly difficult to resolve if they are not accompanied with a philosophy and general ethics.
Taxation has not been left unscathed from the influence of ideologies that confronted each other during the 19th century, in particular the most prominent including liberalism, socialism and solidarism.2 The same can be said for tax doctrines3 and theories that were heavily influential in forging the diverse utopia and representations of taxation that still remain present in contemporary debates. Different mindsets in this subject have not remained impervious to criticism, some of which occurred recently.
It would appear however that taxation can no longer continue to be analysed and built on a mindset within which conflicting ideologies are combined, without ever being explicitly identified, that can no longer consistently interpret taxation in this new context where we find ourselves. Aside from unintelligible explanations for citizens it is the legitimacy of taxation that is impacted.
Currently integrated in a trade environment, the nature of tax is changing;4 it tends to appear more and more like the price of a service rendered by the institution that benefits from it than the expression of a bond of solidarity, or even a social duty. Taxpayers, for their part, who are now much more aware than before of how public funds are being used, consider themselves more like a client than a user of a collective good. It is the question of the legitimacy of taxation associated with the question of the loss of the meaning of tax duty that is at stake.
However while in the current context the urgency of a tax reform seems to present itself as an increasingly shared wish, the determination of the content of this wish collides with the fact that there is no consistent representation of our societies and that no inspiring idea for society has been raised. Indecision and uncertainty currently dominate a fragmented and inter-relational view of a globalised world where it is difficult to grasp the sense or direction. Such a context is at the root of genuine tax disarray.5 In turn this results in political uncertainties leading to a crisis of tax clarity and comprehension, and consequently, an inability to overcome new challenges. Faced with growing social complexity as well as indecisive, even contradictory, theoretical points of view, fiscal decisions have become increasingly difficult. In the end it has become almost impossible to define what the guidelines should be for such a reform aimed at modernising taxation.
The crux of the matter can be viewed through the loss of the meaning of tax duty that is reflected through the growing banality of tax resistance6. More than just resistance, it is important to look at the root of this refusal of taxation that tends to spread, making the economy rife with tax revolt. The loss of tax legitimacy is related on the one hand to the fact that neither its budgetary function nor its function as an instrument of social justice appear to have been fulfilled, and on the other hand, to the growing feeling of inequality on behalf of taxpayers that do not practice tax evasion. Such a mindset will prevail, and even for some justify tax evasion practices that will not be slowed either by ethical or social obstacles.
Herein lies the major challenge that needs to be addressed as the future of democracy is at stake. This is no small task. It involves reinventing a tax philosophy to reconcile the taxpayer citizen and the taxpayer client.
1. See in particular No. 134 and 136-2016.
2. On this ideology, see Bouvier M., The State without politics: relationships between ideologies and taxation (L’État sans politique, op. cit. : sur les rapports entre les idéologies
et l’impôt), see Tax doctrines and ideologies (Doctrines et idéologies fiscales), RFFP No. 84, 2003.
3. See Maurice Vignes J.-B., History of tax doctrines in France (Histoire des doctrines sur l’impôt en France), Paris, 1909.
4. Cf. Bouvier M., Changes in public finance and crisis of political power (Mutations des finances publiques et crise du pouvoir politique ?), RFFP No. 79, 2002.
5. See Bouvier M., For a general movement against tax disarray (Pour une mobilisation
contre le désarroi fiscal), in archives.lesechos.fr, 19 Sept. 2013.
6. See Tax resistance (Les résistances à l’impôt), RFFP No. 5-1984.