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Cooking the Books 2: The nutty philosopher

“Tax breathing, not chocolate cake” ran the headline in the Times (30 May) of an article by a certain Jamie White, who was billed as “a philosopher”. It didn’t say of what but he seems to be a philosopher of taxation.

In any event, he advanced the view that the best things to tax are things people are prepared to pay for irrespective of the price. When the price of cakes reaches a certain level people will stop buying them, but whatever level a hypothetical price of air would reach people would still buy it.

“Privatising the air is the ideal solution”, wrote the philosopher. “Alas, it is difficult to arrange”.

Alas, be buggered. Fortunately, it is impossible to arrange. Not that some enterprising capitalist wouldn’t seek to own and sell air if they could, as in the nightmare situation envisaged by Owen in Robert Tressell’s classic novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists:

“They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air - or of the money to buy it - even as now thousands are dying from want of other necessaries of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless they had the money to pay for it” (chapter 15).

While only a nutty professor would argue that the private ownership of air was an “ideal solution”, most people today accept that the private ownership of the productive resources needed for life - land, water, minerals and the instruments needed to fashion them into useful things - is reasonable. Actually, from the of view of meeting human needs, it is a quite unreasonable solution.

Why should the land, water and the other things that are just as essential to life as air be privately owned any more than the air we breathe? Why should a section of society be in a position to hold the rest of us to ransom and say “unless you work for us (for less than you produce) you can’t have access to what you need to live?”

Of course they shouldn’t. All the means and instruments of production should belong in common to the whole community as the only basis on which they can be used to satisfy the needs of every member of society.

The good news is that White will be regarded as a fruit cake by most supporters of capitalism too. Even Madame Thatcher baulked at the free buying and selling of body parts, inconsistent with her own nutty philosophy as this was.