Jul 242012
 

As usual when people pursue a single issue, logic fails and the plot gets lost. That is the case with what David Gauke, a Treasury minister said, and/or with the discussion that followed it:

“David Gauke, a Treasury minister, told The Daily Telegraph that home owners who allow workmen to evade VAT or income tax were forcing others to pay more”.

To show how sloppy much of the discussion is, here are a few facts:

1. I pay lots of people for lots of things in cash. Here are recent examples: entrance fee for my local photographic society; programmes at airshows; a book in a book store; potato cakes at a local bakery; coffee and cakes with my mother at a cafe; a vague acquaintance to fix my garage door; someone to cut my grass; any grocery bill of less than about £15; a tip in a restaurant; cheese and pork-pies at a farmer’s market; payment for a copy of The Big Issue (but without taking one).

2. In no case above was any discount for cash mentioned. The last time I got a discount because of the way I paid was for using a debit card instead of a credit card. This raises the question of whether paying in cash is cheaper for one or both parties than paying by cheque, in which case it obviously makes sense to pay in cash. It is then legitimate to offer a discount to someone paying cash, without any implication that a discount is to do with avoiding tax. It may be to avoid bank charges or to improve cash-flow or simply because it is safer in the absence of cheque-guarantee cards.

So in which cases was I morally wrong? Am I supposed to say to a tradesperson “I would pay for a book in a book store with cash because I trust them to pay tax, but I won’t pay you in cash because I don’t trust you to pay tax”? (I can probably roughly guess in which of the above cases tax was being avoided, but not with certainty). For me, cheques are the least convenient way of paying people. I use them for big work on my house where cards are not accepted, but in those cases I would actually prefer to use a card. (When I pay by cheque, am I supposed to monitor whether that person in turn pays others involved in cash?)

(For the record, I never pirate software or other such intellectual property. I used to be in the computer industry, and part of my salary came in effect from software revenues. But I never “shop” anyone who does pirate software. Am I morally wrong, because presumably by allowing other people to avoid payment I am forcing others, including myself, to pay more?)

I often take action to let someone else break the law and possibly be a danger to others!
I have calibrated my speedometer using my SatNav, and when it is safe I set cruise control at the true speed limit so I don’t have to keep a look out for police cars. But if someone tail-gates me, I will typically try to get out of their way, even though I am overtaking cars on the left and I know tail-gating drivers are pretty casual about driving safely and I know they intend to break the speed limit. The police, of course, don’t expect people to try to enforce such driving laws by blocking people, and advise against it! (And I would rather have dodgy drivers in front of me than behind me).

I am no more making a serious contribution to our economic woes than I am significantly contributing to climate change by leaving devices on standby. I can personally only make an insignificant different to the planet. It is quite possible that my actions reduce the amount of tax collected by £10 or more per year. Or perhaps I increase the amount of VAT collected and reduce the amount of welfare claimed, by helping to keep someone self-employed rather than jobless!

Across this planet, every minute 18 children die. If I worried about everything I am failing to do to improve the planet I would lose the will to live. Sometimes I just opt for an easy life and say “that is not my problem” and have a good night’s sleep.

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