Vices, Not Crimes

Politics - October 27, 2023

European Diary: Akureyri, October 2021

Most of Iceland’s population live in the southwestern corner of the country, in the capital Reykjavik, and in towns nearby. The only sizeable town elsewhere is Akureyri in the north of the island, a busy port, the site of flourishing fishing firms and a service centre for the adjacent rural regions. It is a nice little place, peaceful and pleasant, although an unkind (and unfair) joke about it is that it is a wonderful place until the locals wake up. The region has been inhabited since the settlement of Iceland in late ninth century. Its first settler was Helgi the Skinny Eyvindsson who was of Swedish and Irish origin. He got his nickname because his parents had for two years left him in the Hebrides with people who so starved him that when the parents picked him up they could hardly recognise him. Helgi the Skinny was a nominal Christian unlike most other Icelandic settlers, but he prayed to the heathen god Thor when at sea or in battle.

Aquinas’ Politics of Imperfection

In the autumn of 2021 I continued my journey around Europe, presenting themes from my recent book in two volumes, Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers. On 6 October, Akureyri was the venue of an international conference on policing and crime where I gave a paper. My topic was so-called victimless crimes which I argued should not be illegal, although some of them might be vices. In my support I quoted one of the eminent philosophers I discussed in my book,  St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, I, ii, Question 96, Article 2): ‘Now human law is made for the multitude of men, and the greater part of this multitude consists of men who are not perfected in virtue. And so not all the vices from which virtuous men abstain are prohibited by human law. Instead, the only vices prohibited are the more serious ones, which it is possible for the greater part of the multitude to abstain from—especially those vices which are harmful to others and without the prohibition of which human society could not be conserved. For instance, homicide and theft and other vices of this sort are prohibited by human law.’

Prostitution and Pornography

In this connection, I discussed four somewhat disreputable activities, prostitution, pornography, insider trading and tax avoidance. Radical feminists hold that prostitution and pornography are not victimless. On the contrary, they say that both these activities involve the degradation and exploitation of women and should be banned. In my talk, I agreed with them that prostitution was degrading, but not only for women but rather for all who participated in them. Aquinas would have said that they were vices from which virtuous people should abstain. But this did not necessarily mean that they should be prohibited by law, I added. Probably, the consequences of prohibiting prostitution and pornography were worse than the consequences of tolerating these activities and quietly monitoring them. I also pointed out that the internet had largely removed the rogue intermediaries who had in the past oppressed prostitutes and porn actresses (and actors). Now sex workers were often in direct contact with their customers online. This at least weakened the argument from exploitation. The limited resources of the police should be spent on suppressing vices harmful to others, as Aquinas had sensibly suggested.

Insider Trading

In my talk, I observed that the widely-held idea that insider trading was harmful was not necessarily plausible. How could you lose money on stock you did not own? It was wrong, I submitted, to conceive of it as a loss for someone if he or she did not make the same profit from trading in stocks as an insider did. Of course the insider information should be obtained legally and not fraudulently, not by breach of trust. Moreover, insider trading arguably increased efficiency in that it hastened the adjustment of the market to new information. It tended to correct situations in which some companies were valued below or above their real worth. I mentioned a famous example Aquinas used about a merchant from Alexandria who arrived in Rhodos after a famine. He brought a lot of desperately needed wheat on his ship, but he knew unlike the islanders that more ships were on their way. Did he have to reveal this ‘inside’ information? Aquinas replied: No. The merchant would be generous if he did so, but he did not act unjustly by not disclosing his educated guess that the supply would soon increase. Generosity might be a moral duty, but it was not, and should not be, a legal duty.

Tax Avoidance

In my talk, I emphasised the distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Tax evasion was usually both immoral and illegal, and it was plausible to regard it as indirectly harmful. Thus it was not only a vice, but should also be regarded as a crime, at least according to Aquinas. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with tax avoidance when it simply meant that you tried not to pay more in taxes than you were obliged to do. It was no more wrong than when you wanted to travel and you searched online for the best airfare. Those who criticised it seemed to assume that the given level of taxation was optimal, which was hardly ever the case. Indeed, the possibility to move from one country to another was an indispensable source of information about the preferences of taxpayers, how much they wanted government to provide of public goods. It was also a necessary constraint on government. Tax avoidance was not only about the mobile rich transferring assets to low-tax countries. It was also about ordinary people responding to a heavy tax burden by switching from work to leisure. The main reason, for example, that the Europeans worked fewer hours than the Americans was that their income was taxed much more. Excessive taxation shrunk the tax base. I concluded that tax avoidance was not only useful, but that it was also a virtue rather than a vice, because it was an instance of thriftiness. Needless to say, some in the audience gasped at my audacity.