If challenged to a game of Word Association, top of my list of responses to “Berlin” would not be “Morality”; in fact it would be hard-pressed to make it as high as the bottom of my list. Dietrich (The Blue Angel), Liza with a Zee (Cabaret) and Political Movement with a Zee (every war movie between 1940 and 1965) – with their amoral associations – are far more likely candidates, while Irving (White Christmas) would make a great wild card.
So it was ironic that the word on every speaker’s lips at the international tax conference I attended in Berlin last week was “Morality”.
As regular readers of this Blog will know, the last year has seen the wholesale politicizing of the noble art of tax planning. Ever since Lady Margaret Hodge, chairing a British Parliamentary Committee, told Amazon, Starbucks and Google that insofar as they do not pay sufficient tax in Britain they are “not illegal, but immoral”, the world’s xenophobic political leaders have been taking their whips to “sinning” foreign corporations and their squeaky-clean allies, the tax advisers.
With all due respect, what a load of absolute tosh.
To paraphrase one of my co-religionists: “I am a Company. Hath a Company eyes? Hath a Company hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we bleed? If you tickle us do we laugh? If you poison us do we die?”
Companies cannot be moral for the simple reason that they have no capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. An elephant that does not poo all over the favourite chaise longue is not a moral elephant, it is a trained elephant. And if some brightspark turns round and says that a company is a pantomime elephant that is operated from the inside by regular homo sapiens, just as the two guys inside the elephant do not have the individual free choice to move in any direction independently, those company homo sapiens have a sacred responsibility to their shareholders to maximise profits – not to go to Church on Sundays. What they all have is the free choice to make a horrible scene and walk out – although, in the case of the elephant-fillers, it would be best to step out of the costume first. And if said brightspark still insists that the homo sapiens (known in human-speak as Directors and Managers) should at least reflect the morality of the company’s shareholders – I will have him begging for mercy.
You see, while regular Church-goers (and roughly the entire Western World until some time in the last century) may be Absolutist – having an absolute and incontrovertible view of what is right and wrong – society wandered a little off the Via Dolorosa in the run up to the latest Millennium and the name of the game today is Moral Relativism – all sorts of different and equally legitimate moral codes.
All this bellyaching – whether from national parliaments feeling they are being robbed or social protest groups with the same sentiment – can actually trace its roots to the vice of Self-interest, the morality of the Me Generation. Parliamentary Committees scream at multinationals for re-routing their Treasuries’ rightful tax-take while the very same Parliaments offer tax breaks to encourage foreign groups to re-route their activities in their direction. Social Protest groups invariably want someone else to pick up the tax tab – suggest to the average protester that, as a condition for upping the tax from big companies and fat-cats, he should pay an extra 10% tax on his personal income and you may wake up in hospital.
So, even if Morality can be projected onto companies by way of the actions of the directors reflecting the moral code of the shareholders – why should company shareholders be the only humans to voluntarily pay more tax than they legally need to? There is nothing in the moral code of the Me-Me-Me generation that requires them to do so.
Of course, this does not mean that the international tax system is not broken – it is totally shattered. But the solution lies in the establishment and enforcement of new rules – not voluntary restraint. This, as I argued in my last post, is only likely to come about through the exercising of strong-arm tactics by the United States.
I omitted one obvious word association earlier – Isaiah. Isaiah Berlin believed that, while Moral Absolutism (an unbending system of morality such as is found in the major religions) was unacceptable, he did not go all the way to the other extreme of Moral Relativism ( Anything Goes – which, contrary to the assumption of some, was written by Cole Porter and not Irving Berlin). Berlin (Isaiah as opposed to Irving or Wall) believed in a middle-way – Pluralism – that did allow for certain universal values that he considered were part of human nature. Empirical evidence suggests that paying more taxes than is legally required is not one of them.
Here endeth the lesson.