Having been connected with international finance for many years I must confess to having an almost unhealthy knowledge of how to reduce taxation. I know how to make taxable profits pop up in my country of choice. I know where to keep financial instruments in the most tax-efficient jurisdiction. I know where to make investments with the least taxation damage to the outcomes. This is, of course, all big-scale stuff, but it is mirrored at some level on the balance sheets of any company in the country which has a half-decent accountant.
But I must immediately make clear that I have never initiated any such measures. I have merely known of their existence in companies with which I have been familiar. I excuse myself because I wish to avoid the righteous anger of the readers directed at the sheer wickedness of tax avoidance.
There has been a good deal of righteous anger around relating to companies like Google, Starbucks and Amazon. I am not defending them, but I do find a committee of MPs an odd source of public reprimand on best practice in financial matters. (Doubtless all the MPs concerned are themselves as white as driven snow, but they do keep questionable company.)
Righteous anger, or unrighteous anger – as I shall henceforth term it – has some very unpleasant characteristics. It is attracted by the sort of behaviour which is seen as particularly wicked or unfitting. Anger is thus not only justified, it becomes a pleasure. We may pursue the foul prey with the utmost cruelty and with the utmost sense of virtue. In fact, the crueller we are the more confident we are of our righteousness.
So at Béziers, during the Albigensian Crusade, the Christian soldiers massacred the townspeople with the comfort of the Abbott Almaric’s order: “Kill them all, for God knows his own.” The experience of splitting skulls while doing the Lord’s work must have been intoxicating indeed.
Nor do we need to believe that the Crusaders were by nature particularly virtuous. Unrighteous anger is particularly favoured by those to whom the experience of being on the side of the angels is unfamiliar. I wish I could be confident, for instance, that the critics who attack corporate tax arrangements do not take steps to lower their own tax bills or to reduce household bills by paying cash.
Let’s bring the issue a little closer to home. I imagine that it is broadly agreed that the instinct of bishops to cover up paedophile clergy was a culpable mistake. But we forget that this has become much clearer only with the benefit of hindsight. Do we not have the imagination to understand how a bishop, perhaps with little knowledge of the psychology of paedophilia, might have sincerely thought it best to avoid the scandal of publicity – particularly when he truly believed in the sincerity of the offender’s contrition?
Please be clear: I am not defending bishops for their failure to act. Unrighteous anger is usually launched at a real cause whether it be the over-protective bishop, the Albigensian heretic or the organised tax avoider. It is the addiction to satisfying anger that I attack. Eric Berne, the distinguished psychologist, characterised such behaviour by the phrase: “Now I’ve got you, you son-of-a-bitch!” (Forgive the language: he was an American.)
Consider the religious fanatic – or, to be more precise, the fanatic who is religious. The distinction is important because the tendency to extremism is inherent while the field in which it is expressed is accidental. The fanatical Christian, the fanatical Muslim, the fanatical Tory and the fanatical Marxist all share a common root in their settled belief that not only are they right, but also that they achieve virtue by imposing their doctrines on others and punishing any who fall short.
There are many examples. Take, almost at random, showbusiness figures such as Jimmy Savile, bankers who fiddle indices like Libor to their own advantage, supermarkets that mis-label products, petty police corruption, sexual preferences other than our own. The excuses for unrighteous anger are at our elbow whenever we need to boost our waning egos.
I would hazard an educated guess that fanatics and others prone to unrighteous anger have somewhat weak and fearful personalities. They have a deep need to protect themselves against their internal uncertainties. They do this by adopting views which give them an unquestionable sense of purpose and thereby bolster their vulnerable self-image. And, in frequent instances, jealousy of the target gives a boost. So those who exercise influence or power over us – such as clergy, police or Members of Parliament – become attractive targets when they fall. And so do those who are more successful than we feel they have any right to be.
But I do not wish to push this profile too hard. My simple reason is that I, too, am susceptible to unrighteous anger. I can think of many occasions when I have given vent to it, and many more where I have been tempted. I even harbour unrighteous anger for those who indulge in unrighteous anger. I do believe that it is part of our fallen natures and so we have to recognise our susceptibility to this addiction if we are to fight our lust for the rewards of rage. Nor may we claim Jesus and the money changers in the Temple as a precedent. Unless of course we are certain that we only act with the purity of motive that he had.