Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The New Law of the Jungle



It’s the new law of the jungle we are breaking.

Every time I use a ball-point pen I am reminded of my dishonesty. It has an ex-employer's name written on it. I borrowed it, permanently. Does it keep me awake at night? No. I am a member of a new criminal class who have helped themselves to something at work. We are middle-class master criminals. Some laws we consider unbreakable - but only some.

Almost one in five of us steals paperclips and stationery from the office. One-third of us pay tradesmen in cash to avoid paying VAT. Fraud and white-collar crime are now so widespread they will soon cost the nation more than offences such as burglary, according to an academic study by Keele University called Law Abiding Majority?.

Oh, the irony of it. The middle classes who rail against those evils of modern society - the hoodie, the mugger and the vandal - are criminals, too.
It all seems such small fry when seen from behind the privet hedge. Why shouldn't the middle classes dodge VAT on the plumber's bill when private equity billionaires pay less tax than their cleaners? I know which one I think is the crime. If Gordon Brown is happy to let them pay 10p in the pound on their billion-pound fortunes, I have no conscience about getting a washer changed minus VAT.

I'm more honest than many of the new criminal class. One-third of those questioned said they wouldn't hand back change if they were given too much in a shop (I wouldn't and haven't). I have worked in shops and I know how the shop assistant feels if their take doesn't tally at the end of the day but I subscribe to 'concentrate on what you are doing'. They can face an accusation of theft or ineptitude. The same goes for the 6% who admitted to asking a friend working in a bureaucracy to bend the rules for them. That's corruption in my private rule book. Then again, that book is called: 'The only rule is, there are no rules!'

This moral weighing and balancing is what it is all about. The pen from my employer doesn't prick my conscience because I don't have a working relationship which is measured in such minutiae. Like many people, I worked unpaid overtime and sometimes incurred expenses I didn't reclaim. It blurs the boundaries. As far as I am concerned, a stray pen or notebook is neither here nor there in the equation. It's just a perk of the job, like the odd personal phone call or using the photocopy machine for party invitations.

In fact, what the Keele academics called criminality is really nothing more than a measure of the difference between legality and middle-class morality.
If you don't think you're in this report, if you're congratulating yourself as set apart from all criminality, cast your eye over your book shelves. I bet you'll find a library book or one loaned by a friend many years ago which you didn't return. Isn't that a form of theft?

Then walk to the window and see where the car is parked. It's probably in a legal slot because the risk of fine or being towed away is too great. But is it always parked legally or do you, like me, busk the parking meters when you have no change or won't be a minute or simply resent being ripped off every time you go to the shops? Now imagine this: you are driving on a wide, straight, empty road on a clear day. Does the speedometer read 60 or 65? If it reads 65, you are breaking the law. Do you rationalise this to yourself that what matters is to drive safely and that driving at 65 on a straight road is perfectly safe?

A relative had an interesting experience when she lost a valuable ring. She claimed its value from the insurance company. Months later the ring turned up and, honourably, she returned the cheque (no, I wouldn't have either!). The official who dealt with her wrote to say that, in his experience, she was the first person to return a cheque. To have kept the money would have been fraud yet people justify it to themselves. According to the academics, 6% of those surveyed actually admitted to padding out insurance claims. No doubt they count up the premiums they have paid and tell themselves it is victimless crime.

According to the report, it isn't poverty but a dip in wealth that triggers this criminal behaviour. The worst offenders are highly-paid people who hit hard times temporarily. No doubt their situation no longer seems "fair". They will pocket £500 on an exaggerated claim against an insurance company but would, hopefully, be scandalised by a £50 theft from a door-to-door insurance salesman.

If a bank that has regularly charged us extortionate amounts in overdraft penalties then accidentally credits our account, how many of us would feel a moral obligation to draw its attention to the mistake? Or might we recall the billion-pound annual profit and multi-million-pound bonuses paid to banks' executives and ask ourselves who are the real robbers? I know someone who had an amount paid into his account by his bank accidently and he immediately transerred it to another account. The bank didn't realise but he was taking no chances.

We live in a world where people are increasingly valued according to their bank balance. Wealth is the new religion; the glitterati bedeck the top of the social tree and it doesn't seem to matter how they acquired their money.
Virtue has always been its own reward but never more so than now. We see politicians disgraced then read about their lifelong pensions. We see business executives who ruin companies and destroy employees' pensions, but walk away with golden handshakes and secure futures.

Money talks. In the past decade the new super-rich have quadrupled their wealth. In the past year alone they have seen it rise by one-fifth. There have always been people of vast wealth but until recently they were so rare we could name them. There was Onassis, Getty, the Kennedy clan. Now there are more than 1000 super-rich families in London alone. Their spending power is fuelling the house-price rise and thanks to legal tax avoidance those who are "non-dom" pay no stamp duty.

On paper, the middle classes, too, are worth more than ever since all houses have raced up in value. But, relatively, they feel worse off.
Job security is poor, pensions prospects are low and uncertain, and they find they cannot give their children the financial leg-up they need to become property owners themselves.

Some conclude that to be squeaky clean and scrupulously honest in such a society is to be a mug. I contend that once that becomes acceptable, the law of the jungle takes over.

There is very little wrong with forgetting to return a book or dodging a traffic warden or asking an official to bend the rules for you. There is everything right with being clever enough to make multi-millions on the financial markets and paying only 10% tax on it. It's legal, but utterly immoral. But after a while you could live with it and sleep easy.
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