Parents tend to be keen to teach their children to share from an early age. Perhaps this is the product of purely pragmatic motives: the desire to avoid being the one whose offspring gobble all the biscuits at playgroup or hog the slide in the park; or the hope that, with training, inter-sibling quarrels will abate, giving way to a more peaceful, less exhausting family life.
But could it be that beyond these face -and energy- saving imperatives, are more deeply held beliefs that tell us that learning to share is good for our children, and good for the children – and adults – they will find themselves amongst both in childhood and in later life.
Learning to share opens up the possibility of finding value and even joy beyond one’s immediate self-interest.
Whether it’s been giving up half a bag of crisps, an earphone, an hour or two of time, or even the best part of a lifetime, for the benefit of others, most of us will have experienced ways in which sharing has deepened our relationships, and perhaps brought us the pleasure of seeing others thriving as a result.
The ability to move beyond self-interest is, it seems to me, intrinsic to our propensity to seek the common good and, to play our part in bringing it into being.
Taking taxation as a focal point can – if we’re not careful – dispose us to reduce expansive questions about human flourishing and social justice to ones of financial provision and redistributive mechanisms. These are undoubtedly important, but moving together towards a society that embodies, or even aspires to, the common good will require much deeper questions to be asked and responded to, not just by key thinkers, politicians, and other leaders, but by an upswell of public opinion that embraces and affirms the belief that your flourishing, is as important as my flourishing, regardless of who ‘you’ and ‘I’ might be.
We mustn’t ignore the ways in which our tax system already goes some way to securing the common good, providing for health care, education, unemployment benefits, environmental protections and many other forms of provision, stretched and squeezed though these may be. Nor should we paint a picture of a society entirely consumed by self-interest, overlooking the many expressions of kindness, service, commitment and generosity already in evidence in small and large ways in our daily lives, personally and collectively.
Much has been said in recent days about tax policy effectiveness and fairness, with concerns being raised about the way in which tax and benefit changes coming into force this week will worst affect those in the lowest income brackets. Yet if we query the justice and efficacy of the tax and benefits systems in isolation from the wider socio-economic and cultural picture, we will never arrive at an accurate assessment of its fitness for purpose. Nor will we find within its boundaries – or those of the state as a whole – sufficient levers, incentives and controls to effect singlehandedly a society in which mutual flourishing and greater fairness are realised.
By more concertedly addressing housing, education, employment and income inequalities at their source, for example, expenditure on benefits and the need for redistributory taxation would arguably be much lower. Yet this requires commitment and perhaps even sacrifice across a much broader constituency encompassing employers of many kinds, private landlords, businesses of all shapes and sizes, and indeed individuals themselves.
If all this sounds a little too idealistic, it is worth considering what – in the long run – the common good asks of us? Is it to abandon self-interest altogether, or rather suspend our judgement about where we believe our interests really lie, and to entertain the possibility that we may have more common interests with others than we first imagine? Could it be that a more cohesive society with high levels of trust, where people feel valued rather than left behind, and in which the fruits of economic growth are shared generously for the common good, would be the kind of society worth sharing, and working together for? Arguably, it is this kind of shift in our collective social, economic and political norms, thinking and interactions that will provide the context in which efforts to develop a more responsible tax system can prosper.