We take the rule of law for granted and believe that everyone understands and cherishes it; but this, if it ever was so, is so no longer. One sign is the increasing frequency with which tax evasion and tax avoidance are elided and treated as if legality and illegality were to all intents and purposes the same. Take a recent example from France, in a headline from the normally sensible news magazine, Le Point: “Dany Boon accusé d’optimisation fiscal (Dany Boon accused of fiscal optimization, i.e., tax avoidance).”
The significant word here is accused. Dany Boon is a successful French actor and comedian whose annual income is in the millions. He rather foolishly boasted in public that he paid his taxes in France, but Mediapart, a French online news outlet that specializes in scandals, discovered that he had used various schemes to avoid paying. It did not claim that any of the schemes was illegal.
Boon did not come clean about this, perhaps, and may be a Tartuffe when it comes to taxes, but avoidance of tax is not properly an accusation in itself. The chances are that those who “accuse” others of tax avoidance are themselves Tartuffes, insofar as very few people make no efforts to minimize their own taxes.
An allegation is an accusation only if what is alleged is illegal or immoral. Since tax avoidance is by definition legal—otherwise, it would be tax evasion—it is an accusation only if it be considered that a man has the moral duty to pay taxes even if he is able legally to avoid them, and even if they deprive him of the vast majority of what he earns. This is by no means certain, since taxes often get wasted or used for purposes that are not themselves moral.
In many circumstances, people are inclined to conflate the legal and the moral. “There’s no law against it!” is the cry of self-justification of people caught doing something wrong but not illegal, as if legality were the sole criterion of whether an act is permissible. But by the same token, they often decry immoral but legally permissible behavior. Which of these two arguments they use depends on whether they are the perpetrator or the righteously angered bystander.
The ambiguities of the word “accusation” and the phrase “tax avoidance” are clearly useful to demagogues who want to stoke envy (never difficult to do) in their path to power, influence, and no doubt wealth, but without resort to actionable defamation of the persons to be envied. Yes, Dany Boon has committed no illegal act, and done on a large scale only what most of us do on a small one—but still, for some, he is a swine.
Dany Boon (Photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images)