Why morality is none of government’s business

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, using Tax Ca...

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, (Photo credit: HM Revenue)

BBC News – Paying tradesmen cash in hand morally wrong, says minister David Gauke, Treasury Minister, is the most recent Conservative politician to argue the moral case for doing what government wants you to do. The problem is, morality is none of government’s business, and by attempting to take the moral high ground, Gauke is simply ceding it.

In America they have separation of church and state. It doesn’t always work that well, but at least it’s something. In Britain we have a constitutional state church which often seems to have better separation. But it does prompt calls from time to time for the church to stay out of politics which is i) unconstitutional ii) unnecessary and iii) not a good thing. When Thatcher was in power, it was bishops and archbishops who formed the phalanx of the intellectual opposition.

The Americans created a church state divide not to keep the church out of politics, but to keep the state from interfering in the conscience of the individual to worship (or not) in the way that he or she thought fit.

The thing about the state is that it has exactly two functions: executive and legislative. On the executive side it takes our money and spends it (or should) for our collective benefit. Margaret Thatcher never actually said ‘there’s no such thing as society’, but it became a meme because the phrase represented what she seemed to be trying to do. She should have saved her energy. The very fact that we have an executive arm to the state means that there is definitely such a thing, and without it the state has no meaning. We may not agree with what the state does with our money, but the days are long gone when the sovereign gathered in taxation for the exploitation of her or his own agenda without any obligation to the people.

On the legislative side, parliament creates legislation. It doesn’t quite create law, because law is what happens when the courts get round to testing and interpreting the legislation. But parliament does its best.

Unlike medieval sovereigns, that is where the power of the British state stops. It doesn’t own the English language (though the French government believes it owns the French language), it doesn’t control the medals at the Olympic Games, it doesn’t control what goes in history books or in science books, it doesn’t get to control our religion, and it most certainly doesn’t get to set out what is right and what is wrong.

Government does have a connection with morality: ministers and members are enjoined to behave uprightly, and both newspapers and the voters are swift to punish those who do not, especially those who claim one thing and do another. But, like Samuel Rutherford‘s Lex Rex, which set the law above the king rather than the other way around (an innovation in its day), morality governs the conduct of government, not the other way around.
Why is this important? I’m not an advocate of moral relativism and, as a Christian, I believe I am called to obey the law except when it is in direct violation with my conscience. However, what troubles me is that politicians are beginning to equate their own dictats with morality. Why is it illegal to pay traders in cash with the aim of avoiding paying VAT? Essentially, it’s illegal because it’s against the law. That’s all there is to it. Our taxation system is set up to reward businesses that register for VAT and keep their accounts in order so that they can claim back VAT on their costs. It’s not organised to reward businesses which trade in cash rather than through cheques. It’s an entirely reasonable way to go about things, but it’s not the only way, and it isn’t based on a moral foundation. We collectively accept the need to raise taxes to fund society, and we collectively accept the moral obligation. But there is nothing intrinsic about the moral obligation, and we might, collectively, vote out the government at some point and insist that the next government makes cash transactions untaxable, as a way of boosting micro business.
No-one is going to get hurt as a result of Gauke’s tirade. It does no-one any real harm to pay the tax that they owe. The problem is when government starts using the ‘moral’ argument for other things. War in Iraq? Clearly Blair thought it was moral. But what if he thought it was immoral to oppose it? What if he accused those who opposed it of being immoral for so doing? What if school teachers taught children that those who opposed it were by definition bad people? And what happens when a government tells the voters that voting for anyone is an immoral act — a sin?
And what about the other corollary? If government is the arbiter of morality, then, in time, we will come to accept law and morality as the same thing, thereby making anything which is not unlawful also not immoral. But the law is built on behaviour which can be proven to be illegal in court. The conclusion of conflating the two would be to say that anything which you got away with is by definition moral.
Actually, given that very few people trust politicians and the ones who do were going to vote for them anyway, this wouldn’t make that much difference. But what if we collectively accepted the right – indeed duty — of the government in power to lecture us on morality. At a particular point, it would become accepted that it was immoral to vote against the government.
This is, of course, not going to happen. But it is the logical conclusion of the Tory tax team beginning to come up with moral instructions to the public. Not moral argument, which would be entirely proper, but instruction. Like Cameron before him, criticising Jimmy Carr for being ‘morally wrong’, Gauke has stepped into a misuse of authority. We, the people, have authorised him to administer tax affairs, not to be our moral pundit.