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Capitalism needs a moral frame

31 May 2013

SOME of the biggest global brands have come under scrutiny recently for employing accounting schemes that understate what governments think are their liabilities. They typically respond that their tax arrangements are within the law. Tax-evasion is a crime; legal tax-avoidance is good housekeeping. It is clever but not wicked to seal the deal in a lower tax environment than that in which the deal is done.

The big brands are so vital to our way of life that we cannot imagine being without them. As customers, consumers, and citizens of nation states, we complain, of course, but there is not much that we can do. It is always in the interests of one country or another to shelter the money and the privacy of the global giants.

Recent publicity about Amazon, Google, and Apple makes me wonder whether we will one day look back on our tax-raising governments with nostalgia. Companies could become stronger than nations. It is tempting to imagine a Doctor Who scenario in which we are all managed by a small number of global corporations, which will sell us our homes, computers, and amusements; organise our food and fuel; and portray themselves as benevolent masters, worthy of our gratitude.

We will all be slaves, of course, and the greatest fears that anyone has ever had about global capitalism will be richly justified. Meanwhile, the companies will not have done anything illegal. All will be within the law.

I have been asked to write some daily Bible notes about St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Some recent commentaries on this letter suggest that the Corinthian Christians who received it were socially split between the haves and have-nots. This was the source of the other doctrinal and ethical divisions - for which Paul takes them to task.

The haves knew their rights, of course, and defended their privileges tenaciously. When criticised for throwing their weight around, they came up with the response that we have heard so much recently: we are not doing anything illegal.

Paul agreed with them. All may be legal, he said, but not all is helpful. And then he tore into them for their moral blindness and irresponsibility. Perhaps it is unfair to compare the richer Corinthians to our global corporations. But the fact that some dodgy corporate behaviour is within the law does not make it right. Global capitalism is a force that encourages creativity and ingenuity, but, without a moral framework, could morph into a devouring monster.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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