…and to God the things that are God’s (Mark 12:17). So what is owed to Caesar? This imperative is difficult for people when taxation facilitates expenditure with which they disagree – whether a new generation of nuclear weaponry, all military armaments, or ‘bailing out’ banks with taxpayers’ money that could have been used otherwise. And therein is the problem: while some of us have no option but to pay taxes, others (usually very wealthy folk) opt out.
The startling revelations that have come to light in the Panama Papers a few weeks back was another example of corruption in the already corrupted and convoluted developing world – specifically in the case of Latin America and Panama being exploited by rich elites in both the developed and developing world. Attention was understandably focused on the famous and infamous people, who were being shamed and exposed.
There is, however, another, far larger but almost invisible group of people involved in the Panama Papers story – and all other tales of corruption, tax evasion, tax avoidance and money laundering. They are the millions of mums, dads, brothers, daughters, teachers, nurses, postmen – the ‘ordinary’ people – whose lives are more difficult, and often more dangerous, because money is being siphoned away from the services they rely on, to line the pockets of some of the world’s wealthiest people. When a powerful people steal public money, there is a direct and potentially deadly impact on a vastly greater number of powerless people, who are too easily forgotten amid the spectacle of the latest leak.
Let me introduce Asana Abugre. She has a small shop in Accra, Ghana, where she makes and sells batiks and tie-dyed textiles. Asana pays her taxes regularly. Women like her, working in markets across the city, sometimes pay up to 37% of their income in tax. Tax collectors come to their shops to collect taxes, and there is no chance of them not paying, regardless of how little money they might have made that day.
Of course, this isn’t the tax story that everyone’s been talking about. The release of the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is the biggest data leak in history, and this time it’s some of the world’s most powerful people who have cause to worry, with the spotlight finally falling on their own secretive tax arrangements.
Blaming the Global South for its problems of corruption is something we in the west do very well, but the corruption, evasion and avoidance by the world elite is happening in our own back garden; it is happening in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. When those at the top of the economic pyramid find ways to pay little or no tax, the impact is felt hardest by those at the bottom – people like Asana, the family next door that rely on food banks, and our young people who desperately need support services.
Tax evasion in British Overseas Territories is not only a national embarrassment; it denies funds that could be spent on public services at home, and helps in part to enable global poverty. Many developing nations are seriously affected by the way in which some multinational companies manipulate their profits in a way that allows them to pay little or no tax in the countries in which they are working. For me, this simply feels wrong.
My Christian values mean I believe that human life is best understood when lived in relationship with others, and that who we are is shaped by the ways in which we relate both to God and to our neighbours (understood in the broadest sense). Our humanity is shaped by our social and community relationships and through our economic relations, which in turn influence our personal identity.
So I want to revisit my earlier question: What is owed to Caesar? What properly belongs to the public purse and what does not? How much and what type(s) of tax should be paid? Should a company pay a contribution to the society where it is based, but in which the government has granted tax exemptions? One cannot render unto Caesar until one knows what Caesar is asking for, and sometimes ‘Caesar’ does not always have the interests of the country at heart. But, in well-governed societies, the politics of taxation have to do with building together the infrastructure needed for common life, citizenship and the free worship of God. How much of this infrastructure should be provided for by public taxation is open to debate. At its most basic level, good government provides those conditions within which the people may flourish – for example: free education, free healthcare, policy and security. Taxation is the means by which the conditions for societal flourishing are made possible.
We all have a responsibility to hold leaders to account in whatever way we can and, if the current international structures are not working, then we should seek alternatives. After all, Christian believers are driven by the vision to build the Kingdom of God in the here and now. In doing that, we are working towards a kingdom whose hallmarks are justice, fairness and access is given for all citizens and nothing is withheld – not even taxes.
DIONNE GRAVESANDE is Head of Church Advocacy at Christian Aid