Do We Really Want To Be Fair?

Yesterday I returned from Oxford to find an interesting set of emails accusing me of having defended the doings of Mossak Fonseca and its clients. Actually, I didn’t. What I did do was to suggest waiting a little (patience) before rushing to judgement as not every act documented in those 11 million documents was necessarily illegal or morally reprehensible. Some have argued back, quoting a few of my own previous posts, that what is legal is not necessarily right; and again, I would agree. But it isn’t right to judge before the evidence has been assembled and reviewed, and I certainly haven’t waded through all the documents myself!

What I think is important here is to distinguish between a natural revulsion at greed and a deliberate attempt to defraud. No one likes the idea of a rich man or woman using their wealth and privilege to avoid paying tax; but is it envy of the wealth that motivates us, a sense of grievance or what? What does it mean to be fair in this context?

You could argue that every Registered Charity is in the business of tax avoidance. Everyone who claims Gift Aid tax relief on a charitable donation is in the business of tax avoidance. Of course, that isn’t the same as tax evasion; but, as those who have been assessing the Panama Papers will tell you, many of the schemes Mossak Fonseca devised, though apparently legal, leave a very unsavoury smell behind, but perhaps as much because of the people involved and the expectations we have of them as because of any perceived criminality. It will be interesting to see whether the late Icelandic Prime Minister is ultimately damned by the legality or otherwise of his and his wife’s schemes to avoid paying tax or by his failure to declare his interest to the Icelandic Parliament.

We don’t like the idea of concealment, but anyone who has ever held shares via Nominees is in the business of concealment. We regularly hide information about ourselves from others but we don’t like people who hide things from us, the public. That leads to lots of calls for disclosure on the one hand, and protests at ‘spying’ on the other. The internet is awash with arguments about privacy and the right of governments to monitor their citizens’ use of mobile ‘phones, etc β€” even when there is evidence of dangerous criminality, as in the case of the FBI’s attempts to get Apple to break the encryption on a known terrorist’s mobile.

So, I come back to my main point, which is: what is fairness, and do we really want it? My own working definition of fairness would be impartial and just treatment, with no pre-judgement of the issues involved and no discrimination on the basis of my own prejudices or preferences. That is incredibly hard to achieve, and it is a constant source of grief to me that St Benedict is always urging anyone with any sort of repsonsibility in the monastery to act prudently and fairly. At least, I suppose one can be sure that everyone in the monastery wants prudence and fairness. Elsewhere, it may not be so clear-cut. Thomas Pikkety’s analysis of economic inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century has provoked much debate, but one question I think he has not sufficiently addressed is whether we really want to remove inequalities of wealth, or would we, given the chance, amass as much as we could β€” and keep it hidden from view.

The moral questions raised by the Panama Papers are many and various; so are the economic and legal ones.


12 thoughts on “Do We Really Want To Be Fair?”

  1. This piece is worthy of a wider audience and should be published in all the major newspapers. It is the most sensible comment I have read anywhere on this issue. Thank you.

  2. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advises us to “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” But, of course, to negotiate our way through life we do judge. How rich does one have to be to be judged “rich”. How criminal does one have to be to be judged “the worst criminal”. How evasive does one have to be to be judged “the most evasive”.

    We all share one thing in common. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness.

  3. I am sorry you have had to deal with knee jerk opinion. Many people only see who “agrees” with the sound bite, and debate over substance is thus rendered irrelevant (in fairness, those people probably learned this from their political leaders screaming at each other in parliament).

    I offer in support of your comments an article by The Guardian in which off shore trading is explained very simply where there are good reasons and bad reasons to have an off shore account/company. I commend to you Johnny and the piggy bank in the wardrobe…

    Most importantly, humour is the vehicle for the information.

    Thanks again for your delightful online presence.

    • Thank you. I’ll read the article with interest. I think part of the problem may be that we all tend to speed read, and there is undoubtedly an emotional reaction to the idea that those already blessed with an abundance of this world’s gifts are to be perceived as grasping even more.

  4. We can easily forget that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the people involved, a lot of people have had their private affairs made public through a criminal act. This may be in the public interest if there is egregious wrongdoing, but the media are only interested in salacious copy.

  5. I must confess that I am totally unmoved by this news. It is only what I would expect. I dislike the breaking news cycle and drumming up of unhealthy passions.

  6. I am grateful to you for your careful thinking on this, which clearly draws on the experience of both your current and past professions. I agree that compliance with the law, while essential, is not the end of the matter and I speak as a lawyer. Also, sometimes compliance with the law may be morally wrong. Legal systems cannot be effective for every case and are as flawed as the human beings that create them. St. Benedict does indeed impose a heavy burden on those with responsibility, since he calls for an endeavour to reach perfection. However, the decisions-taker in such cases should have the support of a community that understands and accepts the principles which he or she is applying to the decision (although religious communities are not free from dispute). If you had the time, there is room here for an excellent piece on the similarities and differences between the financial world and other communities. I agree that this deserves wider circulation and have put up a link on my Facebook page.

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