The super-rich must pay more tax: it’s a matter of evolution

Paying off our debt by making the billionaires contribute more is in keeping with our hunter-gatherer nature

Many years ago, I attended lectures in university on human evolution and learned about our hunter-gatherer forefathers. As I remember it, we are a unique form of mammal in that we gather food collectively for later consumption by the collective.

It is because we evolved while operating such a system that we have emotions that range from selfishness to altruism, suspicion to goodwill, and outrage to a sense of what is due. We are one and all obsessed with the concept of fairness, yet intrinsically inclined to look out for ourselves and those closest to us. It is a dynamic that you can see at work any day of the week.

When it became obvious that the type of politics that had operated during the Ahern years had brought the country to the edge of catastrophe, I was prompted to read up on political philosophy. The
first text I read started by saying that political philosophy has its origins in ancient Greece and evolved from the understanding that people needed to work together if the individual, and the collective, were to flourish.

I was instantly reminded of what I had learned about hunter-gatherers and the evolution of our emotions. And all that has happened since has served to support this idea that the political debate that has been prompted by the economic crisis is an expression of our hunter-gatherer nature.


Huge crisis
Ireland appears to have come through its huge economic crisis in relatively good shape. Those who continue to suffer because of the crisis may baulk at such a statement, and that is understandable; but the fact is that many analysts are surprised that the trauma caused has not been even greater than has been the case to date.

It seems the slump may not be as sustained as many had feared. The upturn in the numbers in employment during the second half of last year has taken
most economists and policy-makers by surprise. We have foreign investor groups bidding for former Irish Nationwide mortgages that just a year ago the Government presumed would end up with the National Asset Management Agency. There is a lot of positivity about our economic prospects.

Gloomy situation
A few years ago when the situation was looking particularly gloomy, the Governor of the Central Bank, Prof Patrick Honohan, observed that the collapse of the Irish economy had been dramatic, and that the turnaround, when it came, might be equally so. Perhaps his hunch will turn out to have been correct.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, likes to say that the Irish people have pulled together and kept their heads, and deserve credit for their mature response, and there is a lot to be said for this view. There are a few oddballs in the 31st Dáil, and quite a few opportunists, but as yet no one espousing truly scary philosophies seems likely to get access to Government. Outside players were also, of course, of great assistance to Ireland during the crisis. And of course our massive debt problem remains.

A bum note, it seems to me, is the contribution, or lack thereof, that has been made to the restoration of the public finances by the really, really wealthy. It has always been politically objectionable that the richest corporations and individuals in society should be able to use offshore islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere to engineer their affairs so they pay little or nothing in taxes in percentage terms. That this has continued to be the case through the bust is particularly offensive.

Likewise, on the international stage, the huge pressures on public finances across the Western world are occurring at a time when some of the most spectacularly profitable companies in history appear to be run by people who have a view that they should not pay tax. There is a sociopathic aspect to this that should be recognised. It is thought that the biggest US corporations have cash piles of in the region of $2 trillion lodged “offshore” because of their aversion to taxes.

Richest families
At the weekend Oxfam in the UK had a report stating that the five richest families there have more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of that country's population. This follows their global report in which the charity claimed the richest 85 billionaires in the world own more than the poorest half of the world's population.

In a publication late last year the International Monetary Fund warned about the vulnerability of countries that have large public debts relative to their economies, and floated a controversial idea; pay off part of the debt by taking more money from the really wealthy.

At a time when multinationals and billionaires that play the global tax system are sitting on huge amounts of cash on deposit, it is a suggestion that fits neatly with the wisdom that comes from our hunter-gatherer nature. Ireland should
be fully behind any international moves to address the issue.