Self-taxation in the age of Brexit
In the wake of the election of Donald Trump in November, American liberal advocacy groups and charities saw a surge in donations. Planned Parenthood, which was vilified by all the candidates for the Republican nomination, received almost 80,000 contributions in the three days following Trump’s victory. In the past two months, the American Civil Liberties Union has raised almost $23 million online, well above its normal rate. A new site has even been created, Donate Bigly, to identify the causes most likely to frustrate or counteract the policies of leading Republican figures. It is unclear whether this level of interest will be sustained in the United States – or translated to a British context. But there are a number of reasons why I believe that it should be.
In the UK, the Conservative victory in 2015 and the Brexit result in June were greeted by no equivalent surge in giving. Very few commentators have offered any advice about what we, as individuals, can do to register our disquiet. Instead, left-leaning newspapers have preferred to bombard their readers with proclamations relating to the state of ‘the left’ in both Europe and the United States. Although they may be fascinating for politicians and activists, such post-mortems offer no course of action for ordinary supporters who watched the events of 2016 with dismay. I and many other Labour supporters seem to be asking the same question: ‘What can we do now?’
There are, of course, a number of good answers to this question. I am not advocating a disengagement with democracy. Activism, petitions and voting are clearly still relevant. But without the clear prospect of another referendum or general election – and in the face of the seismic political crises we face – activism alone seems insufficient. Of those suggestions which have been proffered by commentators, one stands out as both radical and immediately effective: ‘self-taxation’. This is the notion that, by making regular, sizeable donations to charitable organisations, middle and upper income progressives can take a stand against the intolerance and regression that has marked the past year. The impact of self-taxation in this context is two-fold.
First, charities can help to plug the gap left by weak government provision and work against the poverty created by benefit cuts. The explosion in the use of food banks over the past six years has been well documented and is a clear example of the failures of welfare reform. Organisations such as the Trussell Trust, which operates more than 400 food banks nationally, are working to fill the void left by spending cuts. In 20152016 alone, the trust distributed more than a million three-day emergency food packages. By donating to food banks, higher earners can both contribute to the creation of a more equal society and work to heal divisions within our communities. A number of other charities, such as those providing accommodation for the homeless, fulfil similar functions.
Second, charitable giving can have a symbolic value. This consideration is not exclusively applicable to those organisations making up for government failure. Indeed, at this moment of turning inwards, giving to international organisations such as those supporting refugees sends a necessary and important message. At a time when the president-elect of the United States calls for the building of walls and the British government refuses to guarantee the rights of resident foreign nationals, making donations to charities which provide for the global poor or refugees can work to break down barriers and disavow the policies put forward in our name. By contributing to organisations such as the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and the Deworm the World Initiative, which provide basic, cheap healthcare solutions throughout Central Africa and South Asia, donors reject a nationalist narrative which elevates the welfare of Britons above others. We show that the intolerance of our politicians does not embody or represent us.
But is this compatible with traditional socialism?. As a lasting solution to inequality, no. Self-taxation should certainly not be envisaged as a long-term replacement for a redistributive system. Rather, regular giving is a pragmatic response to the current political climate, where the state is failing to provide for its poorest citizens. But, rather than being at odds, self-taxation and redistribution can be mutually supportive. The very notion of a social compulsion to donate a proportion of one’s income to charity indicates a concern with social inequality. Donating regularly can serve to cement the donor’s commitment to socialist principles, encouraging high-earners to look beyond their immediate financial interests.
Self-taxation is obviously not a viable solution for everyone. To ask lower income families to make sizeable donations would be both crass and unproductive. But for many middle class Labour supporters able to spare a proportion of their income, self-taxation is an opportunity for empowerment and public commitment. At a time when such opportunities appear few and far between, this is one that should be grasped.