Why do people care more about benefit ‘scroungers’ than billions lost to the rich?
The Paradise Papers have once again revealed the ingenuity and energy the super-rich are willing to deploy to keep their money away from the taxman. By illuminating the scale of this injustice, journalists have provided an invaluable service. And yet the revelations do not seem to have generated the level of public outrage that might have been expected.
At a time of staggering global inequality, it is perhaps surprising that people are not more animated by the determination of the ultrarich to avoid their obligations to support our roads, hospitals, soldiers and schools – when regular citizens are unable to take advantage of such arrangements. However, this relative lack of concern is consistent with research on people’s attitudes towards tax avoidance.
Last year’s British Social Attitudes survey asked Britons about their feelings on this issue. Our analysis of this data (with Ben Baumberg Geiger of the University of Kent) revealed that the British public believes tax avoidance to be commonplace (around one third of taxpayers are assumed to have exploited a tax loophole). In moral terms, people seem rather ambivalent; less than half (48%) thought that legal tax avoidance was “usually or always wrong”.
By contrast, more than 60% of Britons believe it is “usually or always wrong” for poorer people to use legal loopholes to claim more benefits. In other words, people are significantly more likely to condemn poor people for using legal means to obtain more benefits than they are to condemn rich people for avoiding tax. This is a consistent finding across many different studies. For example, detailed interviews conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis found that people “tended to be far more exercised by the prospect of low-income groups exploiting the system than they were about high-income groups doing the same”.
This discrepancy is reflected in government priorities. Deep public antipathy towards benefit “scroungers” has been the rock upon which successive Conservative-led parliaments have built the case for austerity. Throughout his premiership, David Cameron, along with his chancellor, George Osborne, kept the opposition between “hardworking people” and lazy benefit claimants right at the centre of their messaging on spending cuts. Though gestures have been made towards addressing widespread tax avoidance by the wealthy, very little has actually been achieved. This stands in stark contrast to the scale and speed with which changes have been made to welfare legislation.
Will the Paradise Papers shift the public’s focus? The leaks alone are seemingly not enough. The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey was conducted just four months after the release of the Panama Papers. Even then, the British public remained more concerned about benefit claimants than tax avoiders.
Fundamentally, the Paradise Papers are about numbers – vast sums of money disappearing offshore that could be spent on public services here in the UK. However, as the former chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot, has often pointed out, people are bad at dealing with numbers on this scale. Unless you are an economist or a statistician, numbers in the millions and billions are just not particularly meaningful.
The key is to link these numbers to their consequences. The money we lose because people like Lewis Hamilton don’t pay some VAT
on their private jet means thousands more visits to food banks. The budget cuts leading to rising homelessness might not have been necessary if Apple had paid more tax. Fewer people might have killed themselves after a work-capability assessment if companies like Alphabet (Google) had not registered their offices in Bermuda, and the downward pressure on benefits payments was not so intense.
The causal chains connecting these events are complex and often opaque, but that does not make their consequences any less real, especially for those who have felt the hard edge of austerity.
The Paradise Papers have dragged the murky world of offshore finance into the spotlight. However, calls for change may founder against the British public’s persistent focus on the perceived crimes of the poor. That is, unless we – as academics, politicians, journalists and others – can articulate how the decisions of the very rich contribute to the expulsion of the vulnerable from the protection of state-funded public services. Quite simply, people get hurt when the rich don’t pay their taxes.
• Robert de Vries is a lecturer at the University of Kent; Aaron Reeves is a research fellow at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute
‘Fewer people may have killed themselves after a work-capability assessment if Alphabet (Google) had not registered its offices in Bermuda, and the downward pressure on benefits payments was not so intense.’ Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images