LibCon today has a link to a poll commissioned by the FT showing that around 60% of those questioned agreed that it was wrong for companies in the UK to avoid tax, despite its legality, while only 15% disagreed. This, as the FT points out, is good news for UKUncut and their anti-tax avoidance campaign (though their focus seems to be shifting to banks at the moment).
As now seems to be inevitable every time UKUncut is mentioned, a LibCon reader’s left a comment on the post trotting out the usual line that we all avoid tax to one degree or another, (by having ISAs, for example), so it’s absurd to criticise companies when they do the same thing as everyone else but on a larger scale. The argument here is basically that questions of degree are irrelevant: anything anyone does to reduce the amount they pay in tax is tax avoidance, and given that no one has any problem with that, UKUncut can’t consistently criticise the likes of Vodafone, Boots and Philip Green for what they do. This is an argument employed time and again by opponents of UKUncut (many of them in comments threads on LibCon), and it was also used by Jeremy Paxman in his discussion with the group’s spokesperson on Newsnight the other week (see about 1:50 onwards in this clip).
This is crap. More specifically and less vulgarly, it’s the continuum fallacy, also (according to Wikipedia) rather wonderfully known as the fallacy of the beard. There’s nothing inconsistent in holding both that someone on a modest income who puts a few grand by in an ISA for a rainy day is acting perfectly ethically and that a company which registers itself in Switzerland to reduce its tax bill by hundreds of millions of pounds is doing something wrong. It is, as Wikipedia points out, exactly as stupid as claiming that there can be no such thing as ‘a heap of sand’ because you can’t specify how many grains of sand you need before they become a heap.
Some individual tax avoidance probably should be condemned (as Philip Green has been – though targeting every well-off plumber who takes payment in cash under the table when they could afford to pay the tax is probably tactically unfeasible), and maybe some corporate tax avoidance shouldn’t; where and how the line should be drawn is an extremely tricky question. But the mere fact of that question’s existence doesn’t undermine UKUncut’s case in the slightest.