The idea of a marriage tax break was floated by the Tories at the beginning of the year. At the time, David Cameron commented in an interview that a Conservative government would send out a signal that “if you take responsibility you will be rewarded, if you don’t you won’t”. From this line, it’s easy to see why there is so much opposition to the proposal. Linking marriage and responsibility implies that single mothers and women who’ve divorced to escape domestic violence are irresponsible for not holding the institution of marriage in higher regard than other concerns. And how are widows supposed to feel about the tax break? Ed Balls was right to remark that the policy amounted to “social engineering”.
The last week’s barrage of critcisms on the proposed tax allowance for married couples reflect what was said by Labour and the Lib Dems back in January. Brown slated the tax allowance for essentially “taking money away from children.” Clegg employed a bit of Cable-esque wit and said, “Miriam and I got married for love, not for three quid a week.” Vince Cable himself ridiculed the worth of the policy (the full £150 a year for couples in which the chief earner’s income falls between £7 300 and £42 500): “It is an absolutely derisory sum, the price of a cappuccino.” It’s also likely to be a few cappuccinos more than the next government will be able to afford, given the state of the government’s finances. Surely after calling for austerity, it would be wise to fund only the policies and programmes that are deemed necessary and will make a substantial difference, not something as frivolous as a tiny tax break? A YouGov poll on the subject suggests that the public is dubious about the policy, with 9% warning that they would vote for other parties in response.
On his Telegraph blog, journalist Ed West defended the policy on the basis of the rationality of incentives: offer a financial incentive for someone to do something, and he/she will be more likely to do it. Yet does the economics apply so simply and directly to the decision to get married or to stay married, which involves taking into account huge and often overbearing non-financial concerns? And would such a paltry incentive do the trick? Ed West concluded with his objection to the left-wing/liberal opposition of the marriage tax break: “At the heart of this is not a concern for justice, poverty or genuine liberalism, but some ongoing psychological rebellion by the post-Bloomsbury middle-class Left against ‘Victorian’ morality. And, my God, it’s boring.” But it is a genuinely liberal endeavour to fight against monolithic belief systems, such as the “marriage-is-always-preferable” school of thought. Liberals strive for a pluralistic society, free – beyond a certain point – from the state telling citizens through any form of coercion how they should lead their personal lives.
When it comes to the family, it appears as though Victorian morality = Thatcherite morality = “new” Tory morality. The sums of this policy do seem a little off to me.