Morality revisited: Robert Ewing on the Duty to pay tax

Last week, I blogged about the Flour Tax: an episode from the 1930s in Australia which I came across whilst researching the history of the Australian Tax Office (‘ATO’). Another gem from this research is not a story, but a person, namely Robert Ewing. A lifelong civil servant, he was the second person to head the ATO and reigned for some 22 years. His professionalism and conduct were said to be of the highest standard of administration and he possessed singleness of purpose and untiring devotion to duty, which belied a frail appearance (L. Edmonds, “Working for all Australians 1910-2010”, p. 119). He was renowned for his determination to uphold the integrity of the office. For him, the “principal rule of the department” was to “assist taxpayers in every possible way”.

In addition to these admirable characteristics, he was also quite the philosopher. In 1926, approximately 10 years into his tenure, he produced a small book (32 pages in length) entitled “Taxes and Their Incidence”. In it, he recalled the relationship between taxes and society in such eloquent terms that it warrants lengthy citation:

“We have seen that taxation means the drawing upon the revenue of the individuals of the community for the purpose of providing the wherewithal for effectively carrying on the activities of the community as a whole. A community is a living organism. It uses energy which is supplied by its component parts. It does not drain energy away from the individual; it merely diverts it into channels which are different from those into which the individual would have directed it. It is impossible for the individual member of a community to have any communal life, as we understand it, without contributing some part of his “energy” or earnings towards the creation and maintenance of the communal life. The existence of the community places limitations upon the individual members of it. At the same time, it makes the individual freer than he could possibly be if he had no communal life, but merely lived unto himself. Each member of the community, therefore, is bound to contribute some part of his “energy” or earnings for use in promoting the common welfare of himself and his fellows. The necessity to make this contribution is scarcely realised by very many Australian citizens, and many of the remainder use all sorts of means to try to avoid making it.

Speaking idealistically, the effect upon a community of taxation should be beneficial. It enables the community as a whole to maintain itself with some degree of respectability; it helps the community to pay its debts; it assists the community to take its place alongside the other communities of the world, and to speak with more or less influence and conviction. A community which taxes itself properly in order to meet its engagements always has a good reputation” (R. Ewing, Taxes and Their Incidence (Melbourne University Press 1926) pp. 11-12)

What shoots out from a reading of this abstract, for me, is two overarching, interrelated, ideas. First, when elaborating upon the duty to pay tax, Ewing focuses not upon the specific public services for which the taxpayer has or will have use but rather the general contribution which society has made to the bettering of that person’s position. The taxpayer accordingly should pay taxes not because she has used specific services funded by the general pot, but rather because she finds herself in this comparably better position as a result of the existence of society. A second striking concept here is that the diversion of funds towards the upkeep of a community does not undermine an individual’s liberty by stripping her of her property. Rather, the converse is true. The individual is rendered freer by contributing to communal life, the absence of which would leave her with fewer choices as to how she would like to conduct her life.

Of course, these propositions assume that the tax is being levied by consent in a democratic society. Ewing’s reflections were based upon his own experiences in Australia in the early to mid 1900s. The extract nevertheless encompasses a valuable expression of the relationship between tax and morality, and yet another reminder that the debates we have today are far from novel.

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About taxatlincolnox

Tax PhD candidate, College Lecturer and Tutor at Oxford University; Researcher at King's College London and Social Sciences Tutor with the Brilliant Club. With this blog, I seek merely to contribute to the debate. All thoughts are mine, of course.
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