Iain Murray: Forget the unhealthy and the wealthy – tax the wise

The Government’s ‘blue sky thinkers’ seem to have drowned their common sense in a think tank. The only thing they don’t want to tax is their brains, says Iain Murray

The fulcrum of a free market, as any fule kno, is the price mechanism. It is what brings demand in line with supply. Left to its own devices, it will see to it that, over time, the wishes of buyers are (more or less) brought into line with the ability of suppliers to meet them. It follows that if for any reason you want to distort or manipulate markets, you throw a spanner in the price mechanism. To put it another way: you slap on a tax.

Now who on earth, in a liberal democracy such as Britain, this demi-paradise in which you and I bask and frolic, browse and sluice, would want to thwart the wishes of buyers? Who would deny us, the free-born sons and daughters of this blessed plot, the opportunity to spend our money as whim and chance dictate? Step forward, please, the men and women who know best: the highly educated thinkers and planners who dwell on a mystic, Olympian plain called Islington.

Not for them the give and take, the hurly-burly of real life. Nor will they bow to the mature acceptance of the imperfectibility of human existence. They know, for it has been revealed to them, that Utopia is attainable; it just takes time, that’s all. The view through the glass walls of their think tanks is never less than irritating. Their bulging brains seethe and fret. They are encircled by folly, by the maddeningly perverse behaviour of the world outside. And the cause of their angst is the free market.

There is but one answer. They must open the arms cupboard and reach for the single most potent weapon at their disposal – taxation. Lately, they’ve been firing it off with such brio that the market resembles the blood-soaked closing scenes of a Sam Peckinpah film. Or it would, were the men and women who know best firing live rounds rather than blanks, which is mercifully all they are allowed.

First, they suggested that stamp duty should be imposed on the sale as well as the purchase of property. The idea is that the longer people live in their homes the more tax they should pay, this being an incentive for them to move on and make room for key public sector workers – such as lesbian outreach co-ordinators and multiracial playgroup equality supervisors – for whom housing is desperately needed if the socialist Utopia is to be achieved. The proposal is the work of Barry McCormick, who has just been appointed chief economist at the Department of Health. It was discussed last month at a private seminar at the Cabinet Office chaired by Joe Grice, director of the public services directorate at the Treasury.

Next, they suggested a rubbish tax. Downing Street’s Performance and Innovation Unit is drawing up proposals to bill every household in England for the amount of rubbish left out for the dustmen. It is the latest example of “blue sky thinking” to emerge from the Performance and Innovation Unit, which is charged with “thinking the unthinkable”. The aim is to tackle the country’s growing mountain of domestic waste.

Then they suggested a tax on unhealthy food. Demos, the left-wing think tank with close links with the Government, urged ministers to consider imposing a levy on “fatty, highly processed and fast foods” in order to encourage people to eat more healthily. Any money raised from the tax should be used to encourage healthier eating habits.

When you are a thinker, and when you know best, it is infuriating to see people (who, though workers they may be, are not key workers) forming attachments to their homes – the places they bought, and improved, and call their own – and stubbornly staying in them regardless of the requirements of an ordered society. It is maddening to see people going to the shops, buying goods and then throwing away the unwanted stuff – bags and bags of it, malodorous rotting denials of an ordered society. And, would you believe it, an untold amount of that discarded wrapping, those plastic bottles, once contained fatty, fizzy unhealthy foods, the cause of a citizenry heavier and shorter of wind than required by an ordered society. In every instance the answer is the same: hit people in the pocket.

No matter that the prospect of having to pay more tax the longer you remain in your home is just as likely to encourage you to stay put as it is to move; no matter that you already pay tax to have your rubbish taken away and, should you be charged extra, might steal out in the small hours and deposit your refuse in a hedgerow or lay-by; no matter that if your dietary preference is burgers and fries it is no business of a think tank to socially engineer you in the direction of pulses and organic cabbage.

The only useful purpose served by a think tank, or a blue sky dreamer, or a bureaucrat charged with thinking the unthinkable is to remind us that there is nothing more foolish than a wise man. There is really only one answer and that is to tax think tanks. We could start with a harebrained ideas levy, from which any money raised could be used to encourage people to leave their rubbish on the doorsteps of blue sky thinkers. And how about an idiocy surcharge, linked to a waste-of-time index?

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