by Dan Mitchell
I recently wrote a primer on the issue of tax evasion, which is illegal. I made the elementary point that low tax rates and a simple tax code are the best (and only good) way of promoting high levels of tax compliance.
Now let’s shift to the related topic of tax avoidance, which is legal. Unlike evasion, there’s no civil disobedience and no breaking of laws with tax avoidance. It simply means that taxpayers are taking advantage of provisions in the tax code that help protect income from the government.
And we all do it.
- I take the home mortgage interest deduction, even though I’m not a fan of preferences for housing.
- I take the state and local tax deduction, even though i think it’s foolish to have a tax preference that encourages states like California and New Jersey to be even more profligate.
- I put money in a 401(k), which actually is a good part of the code since it means some savings is protected from double taxation.
- And I sometimes turn down some income-earning opportunities because the amount of income I would actually receive after paying tax isn’t worth the time and effort.
All these things I do to lower my taxes are legal.
With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty defense of Mr. Cameron from the United Kingdom. But I’m not referring to David Cameron, the current Prime Minister. Instead, I want to defend Ian Cameron, his late father.
The Financial Times has a summary of what Cameron’s father did to protect against punitive taxation.
Mr Cameron’s father, Ian, was one of the founder investors. Blairmore was incorporated in Panama but based in the Bahamas. The idea was for investors to avoid an extra layer of tax because investors came from lots of jurisdictions and some, at least, would have faced double taxation if the fund had been based in a mainstream jurisdiction — firstly by the country where the fund operated, and then by the investor’s own country when he or she received his profits. …In 1982, when Blairmore was set up, offshore funds were more tax-efficient than UK funds, on which investors had to pay tax annually. …It is also possible that investors avoided paying stamp duty — a tax on the transfer of documents, including share certificates — by using bearer shares, which were exempt from the duty.
I also want to defend David Cameron’s mother, who is still alive and engaging in tax avoidance, as noted by a column in the U.K.-based Times.
He also admitted receiving a lump sum of £200,000 from his mother in 2011, eight months after his father died in September 2010. The handout, which came on top of a £300,00 legacy, could allow Mr Cameron to avoid an £80,000 inheritance tax bill if his mother lives until 2018.
This is perfectly appropriate and legitimate tax planning, and also completely moral and economically beneficial since death taxes shouldn’t exist.
Now let’s consider why David Cameron’s parents decided to engage in tax avoidance. To understand his father’s motives, let’s look at the history of British tax rates, as reported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a survey of the U.K. tax system released last November.
In 1978–79, there was a starting rate of 25%, a basic rate of 33% and higher rates ranging from 40% to 83%. In addition, an investment income surcharge of 15% was applied to those with very high investment income, resulting in a maximum income tax rate of 98%.
In other words, David Cameron’s father had to deal with a tax code that basically stole all his money above a certain threshold. Much of his income was earned when the top rate was 98 percent. And when he set up his offshore structures, even after Thatcher’s early reforms, his top tax rate could have been as high as 75 percent.
I frequent use “confiscatory” when talking about tax systems that grab, say, 50 percent of the additional income being earned by taxpayers, but I’m simply expressing outrage at excessive taxation. In the case of 1970’s-era England, even a leftist presumably would agree that word applies to a system that seizes 75 percent-98 percent of a taxpayer’s income (though some British statists nonetheless will applaud because they think all income belongs to the government and some American leftists also will applaud because of spite).
By the way, let’s not forget that David Cameron’s father was presumably also aware that there was lots of double taxation in the United Kingdom because of other levies such as the corporate income tax, death tax, and capital gains tax. So I shudder to think about the effective marginal tax rate that may have applied to him and other taxpayers in the absence of tax planning (maybe they paid more than 100 percent, like the thousands of unfortunate French taxpayers victimized by that nation’s wretched tax system).
The bottom line if that I’m very sympathetic to Cameron’s father, who was simply doing what was best for his family and what was best for the economy.
But I’m not exactly bubbling over with sympathy for the Prime Minister, who appears to be a puerile and shallow hypocrite. I’ve previously shared examples of his government browbeating taxpayers who don’t choose to needlessly give extra money to the government.
And now he’s caught is his own web of demagoguery.
Writing in the U.K.-based Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson has an appropriately jaundiced perspective.
Jimmy Carr must be laughing. In June 2012 the comedian was revealed by The Times as one of a number of showbiz folk to have invested in a scheme that had the effect of minimising the tax paid on their (typically volatile) income. Somehow unable to resist commenting on this story, David Cameron…told journalists that Carr’s behaviour had been “morally wrong”. …In other words: the people are angry and the prime minister wants to be with the pitchfork-waving crowd, not on the other side of the barricades. …now the PM is himself the subject of a whipped-up storm of fury… That is why, in my column of June 24, 2012 (“Cameron’s the clown in this Carr sketch”), there appeared these words: “The prime minister could not resist accusing Carr of ‘morally wrong’ behaviour, a piece of headline-grabbing he will have cause to regret.” …As a result, Cameron has now felt forced to become the first prime minister to make his tax details open to the electorate. It’s a sort of ritual humiliation, but one that will in no way appease those who regard the very idea of personal wealth as immoral. He should never have pandered to them.
Janet Daly of the U.K.-based Telegraph is similarly unimpressed with Cameron’s shallow posturing.
…there is a great mass of voters…who are very susceptible to the impression that Mr Cameron is a rich man who may possibly be a hypocrite when he denounces the tax-avoiding wealthy. …The Prime Minister and his Chancellor had put themselves in the forefront of the assault on “the rich”. This was the modern Conservative party…a major rhetorical revolution that took dangerous liberties with the vocabulary of what was being discussed. The Government began to obscure the difference between tax evasion, which is a crime, and tax avoidance…George Osborne invented a new category of sin called “aggressive tax avoidance”. This was a far nastier, more elaborate form of financial planning… Some kinds of tax avoidance are OK but other kinds are not, and the difference between them is, well, basically a matter of what kind of person you are – which is for the Government to decide. …Mr Cameron says…he has done nothing illegal or unusual… Nor, apparently, have most of the people whose private finances have been revealed to the world in the Panama Papers. …free societies should not create moral “crimes” that can put people beyond the pale when they have done nothing illegal. Mr Cameron may be about to conclude that himself.
By the way, Cameron and his people are not very good liars. Here are some more excerpts from the Times column I cited above, which explained how his mother is transferring assets to David in ways that will avoid the awful death tax.
Government sources pushed back yesterday against claims that the arrangement was a tax dodge. …“Every year hundreds of thousands of parents give money to their children,” a No 10 source said. “To suggest that by giving money to the prime minister there is somehow a tax dodge is extraordinary.” A No 10 spokesman said: “This is in no way linked to tax avoidance and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.”
This is bollocks, as the English would say. If there was no desire to avoid an unfair and pernicious tax, Cameron’s mother could have left him that money upon her death.
Instead, she made a gift for purposes of hopefully keeping any extra money if her family rather than letting the government grab it. David Cameron should proudly embrace this modest bit of tax avoidance.
It’s definitely what I would do if I ever get to the point where I had enough money to worry about the death tax. Sadly, I don’t expect that to happen because it’s not easy for policy wonks to earn large amounts of money.
But if I ever find a big pot of money that will be around after my death, I know that I’ll want my children and the Cato Institute to be the beneficiaries, not a bunch of greedy and wasteful politicians (sorry to be redundant).
Heck, I’d leave my money to my cats before giving it to the corrupt crowd in Washington.
P.S. Rich leftists often say they want to pay higher taxes, yet they change their tune when presented with the opportunity to voluntarily give more of their money to Washington.
P.P.S. Since I quoted Judge Learned Hand on tax avoidance, I’m almost certain to get feedback from my leftist friends about the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes about taxes being the price we pay for civilization. Allow me to preempt them by noting that Justice Holmes made that remark when the federal government consumed about 5 percent of our economy. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”