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An interesting (if disturbing) fact

From Jamie Whyte’s A Load of Blair, a book on the fallacies endemic in political rhetoric that I thoroughly recommend:

In November 2002, an ICM poll asked voters if they were willing to pay more tax to fund increased spending on public services. 62 percent said yes. It also asked respondents if they believed this extra spending would improve standards in health and education. Only 51 percent said yes. At least eleven percent of voters favour pointless increases in taxation.

27 comments to An interesting (if disturbing) fact

  • JMnightly

    Or maybe the 11% thought that the extra money would be spent on ‘public services’ OTHER than health and education?

  • guy herbert

    ‘Fraid not. Whyte doesn’t cite the exact poll, but ICM has an online archive, so we can see the exact details here.

    The questions, not compressed for the retelling, were:

    Q5. Would you be in favour or against further tax increases to provide extra money for the NHS and other public services?


    Q9. Following those tax and spending rises, do you think public services will….[Improve a lot/Improve a little/No change/Get a little worse/Get a lot worse/Don’t know]

    There is a slight difference from Whyte’s account, in that Q5 refers to hypothetical future tax rises (and the people concerned have since had their wish, more than), whereas Q9 refers to tax rises that had already been announced by Mr Brown. But the reference throughout is to generalised ‘public services’.

    A more refined hypothesis might therefore be that at least 11% of the population thinks imaginary tax rises are more useful in providing public services than real ones. That’s a more scary thought than the first one.

    In the alternative, the opinions might indicate that more spending can’t improve services unless it exceeds an (unspecified) threshold. I’m not willing to impute that theory to a significant slice of the general public without more evidence.

    What I think is really going on is that the poll expresses the fact that the popular conception of virtue is unhinged from its view of reality. People want to be thought ‘good’ and futile sacrifice is good. (Cue suicide bombers.) Politics as organised hypocrisy and wishful thinking.

  • Panopticon

    11%, almost exactly the proportion of the working population employed in the public sector. Coincidence?

  • James

    Surely another possibility is that the 11% were in favour of tax hikes to further fund public services at question 5, but on reaching the much-later question 9, weren’t of the opinion that such money would be spent usefully.

    I come across such questions myself and wonder how I should answer.

  • John K

    I think the original question skewed responses because it mentioned the sacred NHS first, and then just unspecified other “public services”. If the question had been along the lines of “Do you favour an increase in taxes to pay for a vast increase in NHS managers, administrators and bureaucrats?” (which is pretty well what we have got) then I feel they would have got a different answer.

  • Larry the Lurker

    Was it made clear that these extra taxes would fall on the respondents themselves? If not, some might have answered in a soak-the-rich spirit.

    But the major objection to all these attitude surveys is that they are so easy to design teleologically, and assume so much more knowledge of and concern about the subject than most apathetic, ignorant people feel.

    Hence the eternal danger that the victim will furnish the response the pollster seems to want, which will get him out of your face as soon as possible. There is an inbuilt pressure to assent to ‘nice’ remedies and pay lip service to PC attitudes. Witness the persistent underreporting of Tory voting prefs after the meejah had painted them as heartless bastards.

    Burke’s case for representative rather then delegative government is stronger with a mob-handed electorate than when the MP could canvass all his voters in person. It also strengthens the case for less, not more, government interference, since rulers are flying so blind vis a vis genuine public preferences when they get into attempted micro-management of our lives.

    Our true democracy resides in the multiplicity of diurnal buying decisions– not in the solemn and empty rituals of ‘choice’ between middle-ground-hugging careerist pols every four or five years.

  • You forget that 11% might well be the percentage of the “paid unemployed” who are quite in favour of additional taxation to fund their non-productive sector…

    Numbers, anyone?

  • K

    Maybe they are trying to give the answer “I would if I thought it would work”, but it’s got broken up into two questions/answers?

  • JT

    At an address to the Bonar Law society last week, Lord Tebbitt said that in the 1980s as Chairman of the Conservative Party he commissioned a poll asking the following questions:-

    1. Do you believe that you pay too much tax/too little tax/just about the right amount of tax?

    2. Do you believe that you get better value for money when you purchase services than when the government does the purchasing?

    The public overwhelmingly stated that they paid too much tax, and thought they got better value when they purchased services than when the government did the purchasing.

    Just goes to show how asking the “right” questions can get you the “right” answers.

  • Strooth

    I read Whyte’s previous book, which was good. But a recent column suggesting that increased social mobility might not be all it’s cracked up to be was simply rubbish.

    He’s trying too hard to be different and straining himself painfully.

  • J

    “Our true democracy resides in the multiplicity of diurnal buying decisions”

    AAARRRGGHH!! I live in a society where people are not allowed to glorify terrorism, but they are allowed to say “diurnal buying decisions”. The world’s gone mad.

  • What is the breakdown in the UK of percentage of the public payment of taxes?

    In the US, the vast majority of taxes are paid by a minority. So it is rational to desire an increase in taxes (which you won’t pay) even if you don’t think the effect will be strong.

    Can similar thinking apply in the UK? Any good resources on distribution of tax payments?

  • RAB

    The thing about opinion polls is that people become the person they’d like to be, rather than the one they are, under questioning.
    The “I’m flattered to be asked, and will work hard to please you” syndrome comes into effect, coupled with “what is the RIGHT answer? giss a clue!” hence the way opinion polls are worded.
    Like focus groups, who are similarly self flattering bodies, instead of giving an honest opinion, they become part of the descision making process and feel “privileged” to do so.
    I always make it a point to lie my arse off, to any pollster who dares to come near me.

  • simon

    People are inclined to answer polls in a ‘caring’ way which reflects well upon them. Readers of the Guardian are among the worst sufferers of this effect – for example, they are prone to tell everyone else how to save the planet while earning and consuming more than Mr and Mrs Average.

  • Jacob

    Here is a sample of standard questions and standard answers in opinion polls:

    Q. Do you prefere more gov. services, and better, improved ones ?
    A. Yes, sir!
    Q. Are you willing to pay more taxes to that end ?
    A. No, sir!

    No need to actually conduct a poll. The pollsters know all the questions and all the answers. I suspect they make up those results and the nice tables detailing them. There are ready-made templates for it.

  • guy herbert

    But a recent column suggesting that increased social mobility might not be all it’s cracked up to be was simply rubbish.

    I disagree. It was Whyte at near his best, showing that what most people believe is actually close to nonsense. Rather like the tax issue, actually. Almost everyone is in favour of upward social mobility for their children; nobody downward.

  • RobtE

    At an address to the Bonar Law society last week…

    Ooooo! Was that in Julian and Sandy’s chambers?

  • Paul Marks

    Some taxes can be avoided – for example if you do not have a television set you technically do not have to pay the B.B.C. tax (although that does not stop them asking you for the money, again and again, – as friends of mine have experienced).

    However, many taxes such as sales tax (V.A.T.) and the payroll tax (“national insurance”) are rather hard to avoid (sales tax is on most things, other than food and children’s clothes – and not working is a high price to pay for not paying the payroll tax).

    Even income tax is paid by the vast majority of people. In theory very low income people can “claim back” tax – but many low income people do not do this (it is complicated).

    Of course many familes (some of which are quite wealthy) take money from the “tax credit” welfare schemes (this is also true in the United States).

    Once upon a time a “tax credit” meant a tax allowance – i.e. you paid less tax. Now it means the payment of money by the government (i.e. a welfare scheme).

    It is part of the plan to make the majority of voters either government employees or people taking “tax credit” money to top up their incomes.

    Such people are (Mr Brown believes) more likely to for the Labour party. This is the purpose behind employing about a million extra people in the (even in 1997 vastly bloated) “public sector” since Labour came to power, and handing out “tax credits” to millions of other people.

    The very poor do not tend to get the tax credit money (the very poor do not tend to be good at filling in forms), but that is O.K. as the very poor do not tend to vote – and the purpose of the tax credits is to pad the Labour party vote.

    As for what percentage of people favour higher taxes – opinion polls are not good evidence.

    First because (as people have pointed out above) it depends on the wording of the question (which is true of so many opinion poll topics) and also because people lie to opinion pollsters.

    In modern society it is considered moral to be in favour of higher taxes (it means that someone is not selfish or greedy) so people say they are in favour of higher taxes – even when they are not.

    In local votes on whether taxes should be put up there has never been a case (as far as know) when people have voted “yes” in Britian – which is why local councils do not like these votes.

    In the general elections few people really believe that the Conservatives would reduce taxes (or even not put them up as much as Labour) so there is little point (for people who want to see taxes reduced) in voting Conservative.

    The Post Mrs Thacher Conservatives are just considered to be dishonest scumbags (by most people).

    This may be unfair if we mean all Conservatives, but it seems a fair description of Mr Cameron and his allies.

    Their latest stunt is to pretend that wind turbines can prevent global warming.

    Of course wind turbines (to name just one problem) need conventional power stations running all the time to back them up – so the reduction in C02 levels is minor.

    Many famous environmentalists (James Lovelock, David Bellamy and so on) have pointed out that the wind turbines and the rest of the so called “green alternatives” are a dishonest scam. But that does not stop Mr Cameron and co being in favour of them indeed I suspect that the reason Mr Cameron, Zak Goldsmith, and the rest of them like this “green” stuff is BECAUSE it is a dishonest scam.

    All forms of atomic power are unpopular (due to disinformation campaigns that people like James Lovelock strive in vain to expose). So Mr Cameron and co will not touch them (just wave the new babeeeeeee about to win a few votes from sentimental trash [which is clearly what he thinks most voters are] – actually I hope the public prove Mr Cameron wrong and recoil in disgust from such tactics).

    Does anyone believe that Mr Cameron and co would reduce taxes (or even put them up less than Labour)? I do not.

    So general elections are not a measure of the public’s view of taxation (after all John “we have spent more than Labour promised to spend” Major was hardly likely to get many free market votes, and the leaders after him were not very convincing on tax either).

  • Strooth

    Well, inconsistencies in life are part of the loveliness of human beings, we’re not all Mr Spock.
    I forego eating this pie because I want to lose weight. am I likely to actually lose weight? No.
    Two theories:
    1. Since healthcare needs increase each year (ageing population, etc), you need to pay higher taxes simply to prevent social services getting worse – maybe the 11% have this in mind.
    2. Maybe they believe that regardless of whether things improve, they’d just like to see nurses and teachers paid more (more than, say, junior marketing executives selling useless products rather badly).

    Sounds fair enough to me.

  • Wind Turbines do not require power stations to back them up if the turbines are used to first crack water into hydrogen. I know it is less ‘efficient’ but the hydrogen is used as a convenient store of energy.

    I have suggested this to avoid the need for submarine cables and an ugly pylon string right across the highlands, but they are focused on the reasons why not instead of how to’s. Very disappointing.

  • Verity

    TimC – and you don’t think that wind turbines – if you are referring to aeolian power – are the ugliest, most authoritarian instruments ever invented?

  • RAB

    I want to know more about this cracking water into hydrogen.
    I just flicked a very big spider out of my bath with a dripping wet flannel.
    How much hydrogen did I create? and how do I store it?

  • Seems to be the effect a large chunk of the public’s contradictory love-hate relationship with their government.

  • Verity: Yes I do, but I also think a massive string of pylons across the Highlands of Scotland is at least if not more so. If we dislike the turbines on asthetic grounds then we fight them on that openly.

  • HJHJ

    11% is not anywhere close to the percentage of the population employed in the public sector. The true figure is just over 20%, however, this does not include a number of groups who most of us would consider public sector employees, for example GPs and their practice staff (who are nominally self employed but get all their income from the NHS) and Network Rail (Network Rail maintains the pretence of being in the private sector simply so that the Treasury can keep its borrowing off the government’s books). If you add in these sort of categories, public sector employment is around 25% of the total.

    However, it’s easy to forget that the state takes an even higher percentage – around 45% – of GNP in taxes, so many private sector companies have become highly dependent on supplying the public sector and for those in that position, the NuLabour years have provided rich pickings in contrast to most of the private sector. So people earning their living in this way have a natural propensity to support high government spending. They don’t think of the long term damage to the economy that will ultimately make us all poorer – they just look at where they get money from right now.

  • Howard Roark

    Verity: TimC – and you don’t think that wind turbines – if you are referring to aeolian power – are the ugliest, most authoritarian instruments ever invented?

    No, I think they’re as glorious a symbol of Man’s conquest of that vile reactionary collectivist mess called Nature as one of my 2,000-storey skyscrapers!

  • HJHJ – absolutely! NueArbeit (Macht Frei) have been squeezing themselves between as many parts of supply and demand as they can get away with. This is why they want to be in charge of everything – so they can control the money that flows. It is nationalisation by the back door.

    PPI, use of private health companies as overspill or ‘Supermarket clinics’, City Academies. All these things get the contruction, health, education and a whole range of other industry sectors beholden to the whim of the State. Therefore the business leaders and owners will not rock the gravy boat, fund the Tories or even do what should be done and form a new political grouping along Libertarian lines!