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 — 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 — 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.


St Benedict, the Panama Papers and Us

St Benedict
St Benedict

Today we celebrate the transferred feast of St Benedict, his Transitus or Passing — what earlier generations would have called his birthday into heaven. Quaint? Irrelevant? I don’t think so. St Benedict was a man of his times, the sixth century, and was familiar with many of the things we wearily take for granted nowadays: weak and sometimes corrupt government, terrorism (in the form of barbarian incursions), moral confusion, a kind of organized selfishness which multiplied divisions in society, and a growing distance from the literary and artistic culture of earlier times. His solution was intensely personal but was to have enormous consequences for the Church and, indeed, the whole of the West. He became a monk. Not only that, he wrote a Rule which is mercifully short but also extremely demanding. I do not think he would have been surprised by the revelations of the Panama Papers but I do think he might have been disappointed by our reaction to them.

St Benedict’s life was built on a simple principle: that Christ is all in all. The way to follow Christ is to live in community, under a rule and an abbot, and practise humility, self-restraint and patience. Gossip is sinful, at best a form of self-indulgence, to be shunned along with everything else that is not profitable to the soul. But Benedict’s is no other-worldly spirituality. The monk cannot lose himself in a cosy round of choir duties or sacristy matters. He is to work; he is to read; and he is to be hospitable. That means that the monk’s silence and retirement are constantly being invaded by a very awkward reality. Work demands effort and often involves failure; reading means getting to grips with ideas one may not find congenial; and guests? Well, guests are community writ large, the most demanding and difficult of all, for they are to be welcomed tamquam Christus, as though Christ, and they have the unfortunate habit of behaving in very un-Christlike ways at times. It is here that the monk discovers what his vows of stability, obedience and conversatio morum really mean and begins to understand why patience is his way of sharing in the passion of Christ.

In the rush to condemn anyone and everyone who ever did business with Mossak-Fonseca not only do we risk confusing what is legal with what is illegal, we also run the danger of allowing a perfectly legitimate distaste for tax avoidance by the very rich to impair our regard for justice itself. Investigations are already under way in many countries and we must prepare ourselves for some very unsavoury revelations, but I think we would do well to take to heart St Benedict’s embracing of patience in difficult and trying circumstances. We have had a shock to the system, undoubtedly; but gloating isn’t a very pleasant trait, and it doesn’t often lead to impartial judgements. Benedict was always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to his wayward brethren, only resorting to excommunication or dismissal as a last resort. I think that was one of the things that made him great. It also, not surprisingly, made him a saint.