Tax break for voters could cure apathy

 

The low turnout in the general election - the lowest to date, in spite of increased voting hours and a Friday poll - is once again causing the national nannies to wring their hands at escalating disenchantment with politics and the apathy of youth, writes. John Waters

It won't get any better. While everything else changes at a dizzying pace, the culture of politics remains stagnant and stale, like your conservative uncle at a rave party, doing a knees-up in his double-breasted three-piece suit. And since each attempt to invigorate politics creates even more embarrassment than before, the prospects for engaging the interest of the electorate on a voluntary basis seem increasingly remote.

We are left considering some form of compulsion, by definition an unpopular idea. To make voting compulsory would be seen as drastic and, to an extent, counter-productive, freedom of choice being itself such a core value of democracy. Earlier this year such a proposal was made by the noted political spin-mistress Terry Prone, to an extremely chilly reception. The spectre of gardaí leading away disillusioned citizens protesting at the failure of the political process by abstaining from voting was invoked, to suggest that compulsion is not an easy bedfellow of democracy. There may be another way, less stick- than carrot-driven.

There are obvious limits to the notion that participation in democracy is a voluntary matter. Democracy may represent, in the view of the majority, the best way to maximise the freedoms of the maximum number, but even this is enforceable on those citizens who do not agree. This argument was advanced by at least one Garda spokesman recently, who was seeking to defend colleagues who had beaten 57 varieties of pulp out of protesters at a demonstration in Dublin: if you do not agree with our definition of freedom, we reserve the right to split your skull.

The notion of democracy as coterminous with freedom is therefore illusory. At best democracy represents the optimum balancing of various conflicting freedoms in the broader public interest, and this is an inexact science.

There are many elements of our democratic set-up that are not matters of individual choice, and generally this is so because to leave such matters to the individual would not be in the public interest. The obvious example is taxation.

SOME time ago I engaged in a skirmish with fellow columnist Dr Garret FitzGerald, who objected to me suggesting that the payment of tax was not a moral issue. If I may dare to paraphrase him, he argued that leaving the rendering unto Caesar to the choice of the individual would result in a social breakdown which would, by virtue of the damage it would cause, involve a major moral dimension. I don't necessarily disagree, except to say that this is still much more complex than the simplistic insistence that there is a moral obligation to pay tax.

The individual citizen should, in my view, be allowed to retain, at least theoretically, some subjectivity in the matter, to include consideration of how public money is spent, the extent to which that citizen may or may not have benefited from public expenditure, etc. Fundamental to the justice in the fiscal system are such ideas as: that taxes shall be levied according to means, that monies levied must be used to good effect, and that some approximate degree of fairness should prevail regarding the scale of individual liability - those who gain most from the benefits provided collectively in society should pay more, and so forth.

This is also an inexact science, but it is ungainsayable that the moral content of the imperative to pay taxes in a democracy is linked to the quality of that democracy from the viewpoint of the citizen. I believe there is a way out of both this conundrum and the issue of low voter turnout, based on what I would characterise as the underestimated connection between voting and paying tax.

It would, I think, appear daft to suggest that voting is a moral issue, but it carries at least as much moral weight as the payment of tax. Social life would collapse if nobody paid tax, and also if nobody voted. I don't believe a refusal in either context amounts to a sin, but there is no justification for imposing a legal sanction with regard to the one and not the other. Failure to pay tax is an indictable offence, precisely because a sanction is necessary to enforce something essential to the fabric of social existence. There is the same urgency with regard to the enforcement of the public franchise. However, there is certainly a cultural resistance to compulsion in this regard.

THE solution seems obvious: create a direct link between voting and paying taxes. At the moment the only qualification to the otherwise absolute legal and social imperative with regard to payment of taxes arises from the allowances and reliefs which the State extends to citizens on the basis of particular circumstances - marital status, dependants, mortgages, etc.

These represent, in a sense, a form of individual mitigation. My proposal is that we introduce another form of tax relief, an allowance of the order of 10 or 15 per cent, to be extended only to those who can produce evidence that they have either cast their votes in the most recent democratic election, or are able to show that, by reason of ill health or absence from the State at the relevant time, they were unable to do so.

This, I believe, would guarantee a turnout in excess of 90 per cent in future elections and referendums.

jwaters@irish-times.ie