Book Review from the October 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Why We Need a Wealth Tax”, J. S. Fleming and I. M. D. Little; Methuen & Co. 34 pages, 45p.
The authors are described as two leading Oxford economists. Another economist, Mr. Patrick Hutber, in his Sunday Telegraph column (1st Sept. 1974) was moved to near-frenzy when he read it: “Little piffle”, “contemptible”, two dons "giving a passable imitation of the gaga”, and more to the same effect, By contrast the Sunday Times of the same date, while pointing to technical weaknesses, was more sympathetic and regarded it as “an important pamphlet, which could well have a big influence on public policy.”
The central idea is to make a tax on wealth a permanent major basis for raising government revenue, so arranged as to wipe out the very rich. The pamphlet was written before publication of the Labour Government’s “Wealth Tax” and “Gift Tax” proposals. In an interview Professor Little stated that there is nothing in the Government’s proposals that would make them want to alter their much more comprehensive scheme (Financial Times, 2nd. Sept. 1974).
The issue between the authors and Mr. Huther is a simple one. They argue that “in a progressive mixed society” (their nonsensical name for capitalism) “some clever, lucky, efficient individuals have to be allowed to become rather rich. But they do not have to be extremely rich — say, with over £250,000.” Mr. Hutber won’t have this at all: he thinks that millionaires are good for us: “It is better to have 300 new millionaires, and old age pensioners receiving £20 a week, than strict equality and a basic pension of £10.”
While Fleming and Little would not make “the accumulation of wealth more difficult” below the £250,000 level, they would start their tax with 1½% or 2% on £21,000 (at 1974 prices) rising at higher levels to 20%. Their case for having the possibility of accumulating wealth is the old argument of all the capitalist economists, that it provides “incentive” and thus increases the production of wealth “for the community”. (Those who are interested in political curiosities may like to compare the Fleming- Little scheme with that advocated by the Communist Party of Great Britain in its 1970 Election Manifesto: “The introduction of a wealth tax. By taxing all fortunes over £20.000 at an average rate of 3% . . .”)
Much heat will be generated about schemes to plunder the rich or very rich, whether from Fleming- Little, the Labour Party, the Communist Party, or any other would-be reformers of capitalism, but from the working-class and Socialist point of view it is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Socialism is not a scheme to redistribute wealth and poverty under capitalism, but to get rid of capitalism. The working class are exploited by the capitalist class, no less by the “small but progressive businessman” whom the authors want to help than by the tycoons who stand to lose.
Workers should avoid falling into the trap of supposing that because particular politicians come under fierce attack from some capitalists, what they advocate must be in the interests of the working class. Some of the greatest friends of capitalism and enemies of the working class, for example Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Ramsay MacDonald, have come under the fiercest denunciation from capitalist backwoodsmen who had not the wit to see what was really happening.
This is where Fleming and Little come in. They are not seeking to undermine capitalism but to prop it up. They see the resentment aroused by super-fortunes as a danger to capitalism. They want to dope the workers into accepting capitalism. They hold that “anything tending to lead to greater industrial concentration is undesirable and inimical to capitalism in the long run”. In the interests of capitalism as a whole they want to sacrifice the millionaires.
Of course, with the normal blindness of their kind, they never even consider the possibility that capitalism should be replaced by Socialism.