Imagine you were rich beyond your wildest dreams, like Aladdin, or a Russian oligarch, or Rumpelstiltskin (who possibly was not rich, but merely short; I can’t remember).
How would you deal with your tax? You could just hire an accountant to pay it and then forget all about it, like J.K. Rowling seems to. Once you have a nice house, a Chanel suit and a printer that actually works, money is tiring; it constantly needs spending or tending. Why bother, if someone else, at no cost to yourself, will take it off your hands to pay doctors, police, teachers and the people who paint the yellow lines on the roads?
Yet many of the super rich spend a big chunk of each year in some of the very dullest places in the world (Luxembourg anyone? Or cosmopolitan Monaco, with its fascinating, er, casino) with some of the very dullest people, just to avoid paying their tax.
Perhaps it’s a hoarding thing, like those people who emerge, blinking, into their back gardens while social services pick through the warren of plastic bags inside. But paying tax is not like throwing things out; governments can be inefficient, wasteful, even corrupt, but they don’t throw all the tax money in a skip.
Maybe it’s about anger. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the moneylender Shylock is a social outcast. He insists on his right to cut off a pound of a high status debtor’s flesh, rather than take even more than the money he’s owed. Perhaps the super-rich feel that we – or the government, or anyone they think of as challenging them or having authority over them – are their enemies, in the way that Shylock feels that the Venetian elite is his enemy. Their money is like a nuclear weapon – it confers status and power even if it’s never used.
This can explain why people like Rowling and Bill Gates stand out from the tiny, super-rich herd (like a herd of some rare species) by willingly paying their tax. Neither of them seems to have wanted to money for the sake of power or status. They wanted to write great books, or succeed in business for its own sake; money was just a byproduct, or index, of success at writing, or at creating and developing a product.
People like this should be praised more often and more publicly. If you could get a knighthood or a peerage for ‘voluntary cooperation with the inland revenue’, the rest of the super rich might trade in their nuclear cash weapons for the status of tax hero (and the freedom to live among people who don’t have ‘Gucci’ running through them like a stick of rock).
And then they might inspire the rest of us not just to pay more tax, but also to see that you can get to the top in many different ways, and still be a decent human being.