A comical story did the rounds in London in the late 1970s. The Royal Shakespeare Company, based then at the Aldwych Theatre, had a very successful run with Wild Oats by John O’Keeffe. The play attracted excellent reviews from the press, but caught attention in other quarters. The Inland Revenue could find no record of Mr O’Keefe having paid any income tax and began to make inquiries about his whereabouts and tax status. O’Keeffe, known for his comedies, would have been delighted at such a comic development; he died in 1833 almost a century and a half before the taxmen began asking their questions.
Posthumous pursuit of people is not so strange. On a road near Ardglass in Co Down, there was a single storey cottage. Unused for some time, it had become a store for a local farmer. Even the door was made of corrugated iron. Tom, a friend was passing one day when he spotted two men in suits standing outside the cottage. He stopped and asked them their business.
“We are from the TV licence office”, they said.“Does Mr Carson live here?”
“He lived here last time I saw him”, said Tom.
“Buck eejits”, he told me, “the man has been dead for years. But I told them no lie. He was alive and well and living there the last time I saw him”.
As a new year approaches in which the government plans to introduce household charges and septic tank inspection, John O’Keeffe’s unpaid taxes and Mr Carson’s missing television licence come to mind.
Adam Smith, a father figure of economics, set down in his ‘Wealth of Nations’, what he described as ‘canons of taxation, principles of any effective taxation system. The canon of economy states,
‘Every tax is to be so contrived as both to take out and keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state’.
In other words, the cost of implementing a tax should be a small element of what it yields, yet the planned charges on owner occupied houses and on septic tanks present a massive administrative challenge.
Who knows which houses are owner occupied and which are rented? If registration is voluntary, who is going to drive the roads of rural Ireland to discern which properties might not have been registered? In towns and villages and parishes across Ireland, addresses at best refer to a street or a townland, only local knowledge will tell who lives in which house – who is going to gather such knowledge?
And what of the septic tanks? Have politicians any idea where such an inspection regime might even begin? Any idea of the logistical challenge of its implementation? The cost is likely to far exceed any yield.
Perhaps a contemporary John O’Keeffe will write a comic play of unknown householders and disappearing sewers.