Should single people pay less tax and married people pay more than under the present Irish system? That seems to be the gist of an article in the Irish Times this week. In tones of regret, it said that “while society has moved forward in so many ways over recent decades, our tax system still exerts a fiscal preference for families”.
The obvious presupposition here is that families, particularly married couples with children, should not enjoy more tax benefits than singles or unmarried couples. Everyone should be treated individually and equally, no matter what their marital or family circumstances are. It’s all about choice. You chose to get married. I chose to cohabit. You chose to have children. I choose to have none. The State should not favour one choice over another.
Once you make individual choice everything, resenting the remaining few tax advantages of marriage is natural. On the other hand, if you think getting married and having children are strong social goods, then favouring marriage in the tax code makes perfect sense.
Sociologist Dr Peter Saunders told a conference organised by The Iona Institute in 2011 that in the UK: “Tax policy used to enable couples with children to be relatively self-reliant. The principal earner (usually the husband) had one tax allowance to cover his own subsistence needs, another to cover those of his wife, and a third in respect of his children, so they didn’t need much extra help from government. A married man with a family to support would end up paying much less tax than a single person earning the same money. This is known as ‘horizontal equity.’”
Horizontal equity has been disappearing in Ireland since Charlie McCreevy introduced tax individualisation and the call for a complete deletion of fiscal preferences for families, as in the Irish Times article, is the natural conclusion of a long-going trend.
One of our studies, for instance, found that double-income married couples typically pay far less tax than single-income married couples.
If one of the last few remaining legal advantages of marriage, namely tax benefits, is now under attack, it is because the public value of marriage is not properly appreciated.
As the Irish Constitution says: “The State guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.” (42.2) But when we hear that society has moved forward, it usually means that it has moved away from proper protection and promotion of the family based on marriage, as envisaged by those who wrote Bunreacht na hÉireann.
There are many good reasons why society and the State should defend and promote marriage. The most obvious one is that a married couple provides the best possible environment for children to be conceived and to grow. Marriage is not simply a private matter but has always served a public purpose and this is the reason why in all cultures and civilizations this public commitment is marked by celebrations, rituals, cultural norms, and also, where a proper State exists, legal protection and tax benefits.
In recent years we have experienced a constant erosion of the fundamental features of marriage, in the name of ‘progress’.
The redefinition of marriage in the Constitution with the inclusion of same-sex couple, the relaxation of divorce laws, the calls for the end of tax benefits or to make marital commitment practically indistinguishable from cohabitation, are at the same time the cause and also the effect of the devaluation of marriage as a public institution. Society will pay the consequences unless we change direction, and this would also include having a proper marriage friendly tax system.