Friday, 8 April 2016

Legality and morality

The Panama Papers have highlighted for me an increasing trend amongst politicians, bankers etc. to transfer all responsibility for deciding on the morality of a given action to the legislators in parliament.  Anything which isn’t specifically illegal is thus automatically deemed acceptable.  The phrase “no wrongdoing” is glibly equated with “no criminal activity”. 
The law company at the centre of the scandal has gone one step further in defending itself by drawing attention to the fact that it’s never been charged with any offences in 40 years of activity.  True, but the parallel which came to mind was with a very successful bank robber who’s never been caught.  Never having been caught isn’t at all the same thing as never having committed any criminal acts, yet that seems to be the essence of their defence.
Cameron in particular is squirming under the pressure, and rightly so given his previous condemnation of others for similar activities.  His latest line – that the infamous trust wasn’t set up to avoid tax, merely to allow trading in dollar-denominated securities – is an attempt to tell us that the tax-avoiding consequences of the decision to set up the trust in that way are merely some sort of ‘incidental’ result of an action taken for an otherwise entirely proper reason.  Perhaps from his perspective that sounds credible, but I doubt that many will be convinced. 
It’s bad enough when the bankers fall back on the simplistic equation of morality and law, but for ministers and legislators, it’s a much bigger problem – because, after all, they’re the ones who make the law.  For them to defend an action on the basis that they themselves haven’t actually legislated to outlaw it simply doesn’t wash; rather, it makes the offence worse.
It’s probably unreasonable to expect that legislators and ministers, drawn as they are on an almost random basis from the population, will be on average any more honest or less venal than those outside parliament.  And given the electoral processes, there is no easy way for the electors to keep them honest, not least because there can never be any guarantee that any replacements will be any better than those they replace.  But we can and should challenge the simplistic assumption that morality and legality are one and the same thing.  And especially so in the case of those making the laws.


Anonymous said...

It does mark a collapse in the moral legitimacy of politicians in the UK's liberal democracy. It also shows the power and influence of global capitalism and finance- but that seems pretty inevitable. What's really worrying is that this kind of thing is corrosive and undermines the tax system and the principles it rests upon. Faith in the political system and in finance will be further shaken, and despite not having any particular allegiance to that system, I am sure that the most negative and reactionary forces will gain the most.

Is there any way of saying Wales is or could be different, and that we could be more morally legitimate? Or will that simply not fly with a cynical public?

John Dixon said...

I'd like to believe that Wales would be different, but I have no objective evidence which would lead me to believe that would necessarily be the case. Part of the problem - and Cameron's response is indicative of this - is that people get caught up in a bubble of groupthink, as, for instance, over expenses. When 'everyone is doing it' becomes the accepted norm in the peer group, all rational comparison with other mindsets rapidly flies out of the window.

Spirit of BME said...

I have as much interest in the income tax returns of public figures as I have in the depth of bird droppings on Bardsey Island.
Little Spliff Cameron first statement where he stated that it was a personal matter between himself and the HMRC was spot on but incomplete, he should have added “now, go away” or words to that effect.
I have done tax avoidance, as I have bought duty free goods, I have a ISA and I gave a bloke £20 in cash, for clearing my drains – he would only do it for cash.
All I want to know; do they have an interest or personal agenda in any activity and have they declared such an interest.
Oh, by the bye, the head of state has total protection and right to secrecy on the family personal wealth, protected by Parliament as a clause is attached to most Financial Bills, which Labour, Liberal and Tory members have all voted for, the very same people who are huffing and puffing, so what is good for the head of state is good for me.

Anonymous said...

Totally poor point by Spirit of BME. Use of ISAs and duty free are regulated by/enabled by and encouraged by the government, to incentivise savings (seen as benefiting society and the economy) and stimulate retail. These are government approved tax breaks.

Offshore accounts and tax avoidance in that manner should not be treated as the same as govt-backed ISAs.

Cash in hand is of a different scale and happens at the lower levels of all major economies. Stop making out that £20 for drains is the same as what's in the Panama Papers.

The libertarian right has nothing useful to say on this stuff.