We seem to have killed poverty, possibly a the cost of a slight rise in inequality. Credit, House of Commons Library, Crown Copyright

Yes, OK, fair enough, this proof does depend upon us taking as true an assertion in an Observer editorial about economics. Not a limb we’re normally willing to climb out upon.

However, let is drag out of the woodpile that old favourite of economists, the difference between expressed and revealed preferences. It can be, often is, true that people say such and such. And yet when we examine their behaviour it’s quite obvious that they don’t really mean what they’ve been saying. This does seem to be true of tax as I so gleefully retailed in The Times way back when:

LAST YEAR there were five people in Britain who thought that their taxes were too low. No, this isn’t the number of people who have called for higher taxes. Rather, it is those who were so convinced of the righteousness of state spending that they voluntarily sent extra money to the Treasury.
Economists have a handy term called “revealed preferences”. In colloquial English it means “look at what people do, not what they say, and certainly never take notice of what they say others should do”.

When the tax’n’spend brigade show us their thank-you notes, we should listen: until then we should ignore them and insist that our money remains, fructifying, in our pockets.

We casn and should also use the logic the other way around. Say that there’s some wild cry that the existence of purple sock eaters is the major threat to our civilisation. That vast government programs must be instituted to deal with the menace of purple sock eaters. And yet the populace was strangely unmoved and most unwilling to lose their current services, adamant in their refusals to pay the higher taxes – if we don’t cut other services then higher taxes are the only way to deal with purple sock eaters – necessary. Then we can and should conclude that the public in general don’t agree over the menace posed to our civilisation by purple sock eaters. And that, in a democracy, really ought to be that, no?

Replace, appropriately, purple sock eaters with inequality above – we can leave the wild cry in – and we observe this. Hmmm, the Observer observes this perhaps:

These trends fuel widespread discontent and destabilise mainstream politics. All across the developed world democracies are under pressure to reduce inequality, only to find that many of the solutions either require money that most taxpayers are unwilling to supply or rule changes and tax reforms that cannot find enough support. Answering the call for progress, politicians flounder.

We’ll all not do the paying to reduce that inequality – whatever those wild cries. Therefore, ineluctably, we don’t give a sufficient toss about that inequality. And that, in a democracy, really ought to be that, no?

If we’ll not pay for the solution then we don’t care enough about the problem to solve it. Thus the problem should not be solved. Whatever the wild cries of those we don’t give a toss about.

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Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole

I’ve yet to discover how the number of superyachts owned by Sergey Brin* affects me in any way whatsoever. OTOH: Have I got sufficient money for my own purposes? Have I got more or less money than last year? These things matter quite a bit.

* I’ve no idea whether he owns any superyachts, but I hope the point is obvious.


Indeed! and having gotten a good raise, I have never gone door-to-door to ensure that none of my neighbors didn’t make out even better. (And you don’t mean “money” but purchasing power, or at least money left over after paying for necessities, compared to last year.)

Though Al Gore is a better example, as his “business” consists solely of jetting to numerous conferences to make the case for the energy use of the rest of us to be coercively curtailed.


Willingly sending a check to the Treasury is a stretch. (Likewise setting fire to banknotes, an equivalent but less visible way to enable the Treasury to print an equivalent number of new ones without the usual fiscal consequence.)

A recent cut in the Massachusetts state income tax was met with such hue and cry that the tiny Republican minority secured a check-box that taxpayers could tick if they wanted to pay at the old, higher rate. These have numbered about 100, raising insignificant new revenue, and involving none of the most ardent advocates of higher rates.