Simon Heywood Defends “Peace Tax” Schemes

Simon Heywood of Peace Tax Seven responds to my critique of the “peace tax” campaign:

This is a good criticism which we should not dismiss out of hand. Peace tax reform is a limited goal with, at most, a highly focused practical impact. Indeed, from one viewpoint, this is a good reason to adopt it — as we explain to the highly conservative judges, politicians and Treasury officials with whom we deal. Our view is that the effort is worth it. This is partly because peace tax is an intrinsic, though a limited, good, and as Burke says (more or less) it is a mistake to do nothing because you can’t do everything. But it is also worth it because, although it won’t open the floodgates to across-the-board legal recognition of any conceivable point of conscience, it will extend the legal recognition due to the absolute value of human life, and the freedom of the individual conscience to acknowledge it.

Most importantly, it will help to create broad a culture of peace. If taxpayers know they can object in conscience to military expenditure, and that the UK government will respect this, and put the money instead towards nonviolent programmes which it (the government) regards as worth spending money on, this will add to a cumulative psychological shift, which is hard to measure precisely, but which is the only really decisive force, away from the current consensus, focused on a “common sense of war,” and towards a new consensus focused on a “common sense of peace.” Or in other words: it will demonstrate to people that mass destruction, applied too late after avoidable crises, is not the best or only means of national and international security: that in any crisis or conflict situation, if you really want to, you can set up a pre-emptive monitoring to spot conflicts and transform them quickly and creatively before they collapse into violence, negotiate, send in third-party mediators and/or peacekeepers, redress economic or political grievances, abandon IMF structural adjustment programmes, regulate corporations, reform and enforce international law, isolate paramilitaries in military terms while including them in political processes, prosecute perpetrators of atrocities, adjust inappropriately-drawn state borders and/or state constitutions, work with and empower peace-tendencies and peace-interest groups in ways which are sensitive to local cultures, recognise, encourage and make international heroes of local nonviolent resistance networks and NGOs undermining tyrants and dictators, isolate and embarrass recalcitrant governments, create incentivised disarmament programmes for all belligerents (including, usually, western backers fomenting proxy wars), name, blame and delegimitise neocolonial empire-building, explore alternative energy sources to replace oil and gas, create symbols in the cultural, artistic, and sporting fields, send in expert community peace workers…

…and all for a fraction of the cost of an aircraft carrier.

For me the “real” point of peace tax law and campaigning is to spread this message. If it works, it will create interest and feed it into more widespread and wholesale campaigning and activism of the kind you describe.

A while back I noted that the U.S. is by far the biggest arms producer in the world, with a military budget just about as big as that of the rest of the world combined and with the lion’s share of the international arms market.

But, go figure, we’re not making enough bullets fast enough to replace the ones we’re firing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestic production isn’t keeping up with demand, so the U.S. is going shopping in, among other places, Canada to make up the shortfall.

At The Leiter Reports they’re discussing right-wing tax-bashing powerhouse Grover Norquist’s proposal to cut capital goods depreciation time down to one year. Essentially that means: invest in stuff for your business, deduct the whole cost right away.

If I look at this proposal from the perspective of a tax resister, it seems like a fantastic way for folks like me to zero out our taxes. The commentators at The Leiter Reports, though, worry about it having a weirdly distorting effect on the economy: People and businesses with lots of income and capital will be motivated to purchase and develop things that are not economically sensible or profitable because even if they end up losing money on their investment, they end up ahead of where they would have been if they had been taxed on the money they spent. The authors imagine a wilderness of abandoned strip malls that were never designed to be successful but only to be developed and sold at a loss for tax reasons.

I wonder if this is not a bug but a feature. It reminds me of the old Keynesian saw about the government being able to stimulate the economy by paying one set of people to dig ditches and another set of people to fill in the ditches the first people dug. Perhaps today’s economists imagine that such a boondoggle would be even better if it were privatized.

(On the other hand, by encouraging businesses to invest in capital goods rather than to hire new employees, a tax policy like this might actually exacerbate unemployment.)