My mother – herself one of two siblings – once told me that her greatest fear in bringing up an only child was how to teach me about fairness and sharing. As it turns out, her fear was unfounded. My father believed strongly in meritocracy, which basically meant that he came first in everything, and so I didn’t win a game of Monopoly or get first choice in a box of chocolates until I was in my twenties. “But that’s not fair!” I would wail. “Precisely,” he would counter, building yet another hotel on Mayfair while scoffing the chartreuse cream from the Black Magics. I’ve often thought that repeatedly losing all of my hard-earned Monopoly money to the paternal fat-cat was the genesis of my absolute belief that those who have acquired their money through dodgy means (e.g. waiting until I had gone to the loo and then reshuffling the Community Chest cards in his own favour) should not be allowed to keep it.
Fairness is on my mind at the moment, in part because of the Bernie Ecclestone bribery trial fiasco that I discussed last week. One of the many troubling aspects of that story is that such measures – buying oneself out of a trial – are available only to the select few who can afford it. And I had thought that we were all equal in the eyes of the law – everyone should have access to the same justice. Granted, some can afford better lawyers, but surely it is wrong to have a system whereby those who have more money can be offered a better outcome (e.g. a financial rather than a custodial penalty).
And – forgive me for the rambling nature of this post, but it’s my blog and I’ll whinge if I want to – this has brought me to a realisation about my personal take on tax evasion. Regular readers will know that I am Not In Favour. But it is always tricky when someone asks in training – and someone always asks in training – “But what about tax avoidance – that’s not illegal, after all.” And of course they are right. But something about tax avoidance always gets my back up, and the parallels with the Bernie situation have finally bought it to light: it’s the unfairness of it. Only wealthy people can afford to avoid tax. Only they can buy the advice and the research and the ongoing vigilance that is needed to be a successful avoider of tax. The rest of us are too busy earning a living to be able to spare either the time to do our own avoidance, or the money to pay someone else to do it for us. So, just as Bernie’s millions bought him access to an outcome denied poorer defendants, those with pots of money can buy their way into a special VIP tax zone denied the rest of us. My tax hero of the week is the actor Stellan Skarsgård (the one with the bare bottom in “Mamma Mia!”), who was asked in an interview about his views on taxation:
Mr. Skarsgård, where do you live?
I live in Sweden because the taxes are higher, nobody is starving, good health care, free schools and universities. It’s a civilized country and I like that.
You prefer paying higher taxes?
Of course. If you make a lot of money like I do you should pay higher taxes. Everybody should have the possibility to go to school, and university, and have good healthcare.
And his bottom’s not bad either.