I was brought up in Singapore, and my father – capitalist to his boot-straps (well, sandals – it was a hot country) – had a theory about the main difference between Asia, Europe and America. In America, he said, the individual was king: everything was done for the benefit of the individual, and very little for society as a whole. In Asia (and particularly in China – this was the 1980s), it was the other way round: society came first, and the needs and rights of the individual were subservient to the general good. And Europe came somewhere in between, with more of a balance between individual and society. With slight variations over time, I have generally found it to be a workable theory. And it ties in nicely with my own views on taxation.
I realise that I am a little strange in this, but I rather like taxation. I am quite proud when I submit my tax return, as I like what it says about me and about my society – that I care enough to contribute, and that they will spend it on things for the benefit of all. Of course I don’t agree with all of their plans – but then I don’t expect to. I vote for the people who seem to represent me most closely, and I take the rough with the smooth – it would be entirely unreasonable and idealistic of me to expect any government to chime exactly with my preferences.
And so I personally find tax evasion one of the most irritating of crimes. I’m happy to pay my fair share, but I’m not keen on making up the shortfall caused by others who don’t pay theirs. And I am especially mystified by very rich people who evade tax. Uli Hoeness, the president of football club Bayern Munich, is just starting his jail sentence for evading 27.2 million euros. 27.2 million euros! If that’s the amount of tax he owed, he was a seriously wealthy man, who could easily have paid up and still led a fabulously privileged life, but instead he squirrelled it away in what the BBC calls “a secret Swiss bank account”. Still, some good has come from it, as reported in the Guardian: “The most high-profile tax evasion trial in German history has already had a noticeable effect: more than 26,000 German tax evaders have opted for voluntary disclosure since the Hoeness revelations hit the headlines in 2013. In Bavaria alone, the figure has quadrupled since 2012.” If Hoeness eventually nets his country more tax than he was accused of evading, perhaps his appeal will argue that he was in fact acting in the public interest – now that would be a fascinating case to follow.