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.

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Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?

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