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Richard North, 26/12/2012  


Geese 000-her.jpg

For diverse reasons, Council Tax is going to be a big issue this year, although it is going to be very difficult to get a clear picture of what is going if one relies on local media.

Just before Christmas, for instance, we saw a classic example of "Uncle Tom" reporting by a local newspaper on the subject of Council Tax. This had "taxpayers" of Gloucester City Council "fuming" after a £3.1million black hole had emerged "because people have failed to pay their council tax".

The newspaper was the Gloucester Citizen which, with the most slender of evidence asserted "that taxpayers on the streets of Gloucester are demanding tough action on those that don't pay up".

Support for this proposition amounted to David McKechnie, from Abbeydale, who was cited as saying: "How can these people get away with it? … I pay my council tax every month by direct debit and don't complain. They should take it out of people's benefits before the money even reaches them".

Then the paper had one 78-year-old pensioner, from Kingsholm, who asked not to be named. This one contributed the following gem: "I pay my council tax because we all expect services in return. It's not fair if other people aren't making their contribution".

Before taking this further, one should note that the paper is somewhat overstating the case. Its "whopping" £3,119,121.74 – comprising the Council's "black hole" amounts to debts going back to 1993 – nearly twenty years. The city council actually collects £49.9 million each year and successful collections are at 96.6 percent – which is actually a pretty good record.

However, current debtors amount to some 4,212 people, who have been subject to court action for non-payment of Council Tax since April. And it is these people – or some of them – who are attempting to keep the system honest. Their actions are protecting the rest of the population from taxation even more excessive than it already is.

To lend substance this assertion, with which many will fundamentally disagree, we need to refer to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French economist and minister of finance under King Louis XIV of France, and his outstanding contribution to the wealth human knowledge. That was the aphorism, "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing".

This represents a fundamental truth which recognises that in any system of government, there is a natural limit to the level at which people will tolerate taxation. Once too many people start "hissing", government has to look elsewhere for its money, or trim its ambitions.

The corollary to this, however, also represents a fundamental truth. If people do not protest – i.e., "hiss" - then governments will assume consent, and increase levels of taxation until resistance stiffens. There is no other limiting factor.

Protest, of course, can take many forms. Traditionally the permitted process is the election – where electors are given the opportunity of removing their representatives if they don't approve of their plans. But even elementary-level students of government know that this mechanism no longer works – if it ever did.

On the other hand, a potentially effective way of "hissing" is to withhold payment, a mechanism which is every bit as "democratic" as an election. While the latter might attend to the demos, cutting the money supply is a practical application of kratos - people power.

Needless to say, there is a huge, well-established system aimed at preventing people exercising power, from the councils themselves, to their courts, the bailiffs and their uniformed "enforcers" - otherwise known as the police. Their existence and the way they operate underlines the fact that we are not (and never really have been) a democracy.

The point here is that, while every sensible person will agree that, as citizens, we should pay the legitimate costs of government, the crucial qualification is "legitimacy". And, in many ways, the system so far lacks any legitimacy that resisting it becomes a civic duty. 

In other words – in the interests of democracy - we hiss now, and loudly, or end up as a flock of naked geese. And it is cold without any feathers. 

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