Thought for the day: Taxes

By The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich - 06 March 2018
A picture of Swiss currency
Sunday’s election in Italy attracted a lot of coverage, but a referendum in Switzerland got little attention. The Swiss were invited to abolish their equivalent of the BBC licence fee. Households there pay £348 a year to keep the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation going, more than twice the cost here.

An overwhelming majority of 71% voted to keep things as they are. Sunday’s vote seemed to hinge on keeping a small country with a lot of minorities unified, something in which the national broadcaster has a big part to play.

There was a second question in the referendum. The electorate was asked to give permission to the Government to levy federal taxes, as is periodically required in Swiss law. The current right to do so runs out in 2020. An even bigger majority, 84%, voted in favour of levying federal taxes until 2035.

Our relationship with taxation is complicated. We want the benefits of publically funded services in health, education and welfare, let alone defence and so much else, but completing a tax return is scarcely a joyful experience. Taxation can seem like an imposition. Sometimes it is, deliberately. An occupying power, for example, will tax a captive population not for their benefit but to emphasise their submission. Jesus lived in a land where the Romans were in occupation. He was asked whether taxes should be paid to the Roman Emperor. No-one had any choice, of course, but the poll tax the Romans levied was hated. Everyone used the Roman coinage, though, and after asking his questioners for a coin Jesus said “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar, and to God what is due to God.” That clever answer has kept theologians happy for 2,000 years unpacking its meaning.

At the heart of his reply is the idea of “giving what is due”. It suggests we should recognise that what’s asked of us is right, whether from God or the secular power. Such mutuality was expressed in Switzerland on Sunday. There will always be arguments about how much tax we should pay. And we can vote governments out if we think they get it wrong. But there’s something striking about a population directly granting their government permission to levy taxes on them. Perhaps taxation wouldn’t then feel so arbitrary. And the idea of a government seeking permission from the people is, for me, symbolic of something bigger and may encourage a culture of greater fairness and trust. Whatever else, an 84% majority in favour of being taxed is a stunning result.

This blog is an adapted transcript from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, broadcast on Tuesday 6 March 2018 by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. To listen to and read more Thought for the Day features, please visit the BBC website.

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