The terribly nice Jolyon Maugham has written a thoughtful blog post in which he characterises online debates around tax policy as a war between Moralists and Technocrats. Do go read the piece for yourself (not least because he's very kind about me), but in summary he argues that Moralists want change for the better, while Technocrats revel in pointing out the flaws in their arguments. Because both sides have entirely different objectives, this is a war that neither can win. So they should work together to build a better world. Hooray!
I want a better world, for sure. But I'm unpersuaded by Jolyon's blasé dismissal of the Technocrats' concerns. Here's why.
The title of this piece is taken from a first year Cambridge Philosophy paper. The question is based around the logical principle that, if you start from a falsehood you can deduce anything logically, even statements that in retrospect turn out to have been true. The same is true in tax policy. If you throw the truth out of the window, you can conclude anything. So in assessing and implementing tax policy it is vitally important to hold on to the truth for dear life. Abandon it at your peril, because you may end up drawing the wrong conclusions from your dodgy premises.
In criticising the work of Jolyon's Moralists, that's what I see myself as doing. Where they have got something wrong, it must surely be right - moral, even - to seek to get them to correct it. If, as they argue, it doesn't matter to their overall argument then they can have no problem with using the truth instead of a half-truth. If, unfortunately, it holes their argument below the waterline then they're better off admitting it now rather than the truth becoming clear after politicians have wrongly believed their arguments.
Simply, there can be no justification whatsoever for resisting factual corrections to their arguments.
So why do they? Maybe, as Jolyon suggests, they care so deeply about their cause that they will do anything that solves it, even if that means cutting a few corners. But Technocrats care about these causes too. It's a lie to pretend that the only reason to oppose a sloppy, half-baked Moral case is because the Technocrats want to maintain the status quo.
Imagine a Moralist is trying to plan a journey with his Technocrat spouse. "We'll take the A888 for 20 miles then turn left and carry on for 10 miles" "Yes, but that won't get us to our destination." "You don't want to get us to our destination, do you?!"
If the Moralist has misread the map, is he truly serious about the destination? Or does he maybe just want to sit in the driver's seat?