Taxation and Representation

A peculiar feature of the Irish debate over voting rights is the use of a convoluted version of the American revolutionary cry, “No representation without taxation”. Opponents of emigrant voting rights sometimes seem to actually believe that the inverted phrasing –  “no taxation without representation” –  is a genuine democratic principle. This could not be further from the truth.

The phrasing “no taxation without representation” of course, originated in the days leading up the American Revolutionary War as the British as a cry against the tyranny of the crown taxing colonists who were not represented in Parliament. It was a call for greater democracy, not less. Twisting the slogan around does not lead to a rallying cry based on similarly ennobling democratic principles.  

Instead, “no representation without taxation” is a slogan that appears to justify a position that no other country in the world adopts: that voting should be limited only to those paying taxes. In fact, this notion of depriving emigrants of representation because they don’t pay tax has stopped not a single one of the more than 120 countries and territories that offer their emigrants voting rights. There are only two countries that tax their emigrants on income earned abroad – the US and Eritrea. Besides the US, nearly every country in Europe, and the vast majority of developed nations, and many developing ones are allowing their expats to vote, with not a single one of them levying taxes on their citizens. 

It is ironic that this call to exclude emigrants from paying taxes arises in Ireland, a nation that has traditionally relied on emigration to provide financial assistance in times of economic distress.  Emigrants relieve financial pressures and jobless numbers by departing, send money directly home in the form of remittances, and are expected to act as Ireland’s loyal economic foot soldiers abroad – using business networking to open up new markets for Irish businesses, encouraging FDI, acting as informal ambassadors for Irish tourism and culture. Additionally, there are many emigrants who are subject to taxation – Ireland taxed all pension accounts from 2011 to 2015, for example, including those of emigrants, some of whom, depending on where they were residing, were unable to bring their accounts to the countries in which they were residing. Others are homeowners, with some having left the country in order to pay the mortgage, and are subject to tax on the homes they own. Many pay VAT when they are home for visits. Frequently, when these taxes are pointed out to an opponent of voting rights, they move the goalpost, saying that income tax should be the requirement. But of course, we don’t take away the vote from people whose income comes solely from the state. That would be evidently undemocratic.

And what of the United States, where the original slogan issued forth? The US specifically bans the requirement of taxation in return for a vote. This principle is so important, in fact, that it is enshrined in the US Constitution. The 24th amendment says,

The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

There is no democratic justification for the slogan “No representation without taxation.” It is a wholly undemocratic notion that urges a return to pre-Enlightenment days, when only men of property could vote.