Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Publicity and Protest

I've been thinking again about the campaigns concerning tax justice that have been proliferating of late. One of the commonly heard arguments against them has been that the targets of these campaigns, companies such as Vodafone and individuals such as Sir Philipp Green, have done "nothing wrong" since their tax arrangements are entirely within the rules. In response to this suggestion there are two points worth making in reply:

Firstly, to suggest that simply acting within the law is sufficient to be exculpated from wrong-doing is an extreme form of legal positivism. To adopt this conclusion would lead to the view that there was nothing specifically wrong with the behaviour of MPs in terms of expenses claims since, as they repeatedly claimed, these claims were "within the rules". Few accepted this argument from MPs and there is no more reason to adopt it with regard to those targeted by tax justice campaigns. There is not a simple alignment between acting legally and acting in a way that is not wrong and no one should really need this explaining to them.

The second point is that to make public arrangements that, whilst perfectly lawful, are not either (a) public-spirited or (b) just is the point of the campaigns in question. Reform of law is achieved by making public the nature of its operation and what it permits. Half of the battle concerning laws precisely consists in the question of whether the behaviour rendered permissible or prohibited by it should be viewed in the way the law suggests. Frequently the nature of what is permitted or prohibited is not clear to the public generally which is why the focus on campaigns is on making this public knowledge.

What the second point demonstrates is the further need for attention to the nature of publicity in relation to law. As mentioned in postings sometime ago the distinction Kant makes between negative and affirmative principles of publicity in Perpetual Peace is to the effect that under the latter notion only that which is not only compatible with publicity but also mandated by it should be understood as right. Under this criterion there can be little doubt that tax justice campaigners have succeeded in exposing to view some very unpleasant aspects of current law.

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