Money does make you mean. The willingness to cheat in order to get ahead prevails in Monopoly as much as it does in tax evasion, while the feeling of success does not recognise the privilege and resources one started out with. This sense of entitlement and the arrogance it produces seems to time after time crawl its way into the debates on economic policies. Taxes have always been the great demon to those who feel fortunate enough to bypass them via Cayman Islands, and recently yet another system of fairness and equality in the crosshairs.
Finnish millionaire Reima Kuisla was fined €54,000 (£39,000) for driving 23 kilometres an hour (14mph) above the speed limit of 80 kilometres an hour (50mph). Angered Kuisla decided to do what any member of a modern civilised society would do; get a hold of a Finnish red-top tabloid and complain how his personal wealth is being trampled on by the red tape and socialism of a welfare state. In an interview for Finland’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, Kuisla argued that he was not being punished for a traffic violation but for being successful and wealthy – which prompted the Washington Times to headline their short piece on the issue as ‘War on Wealth’.
It has been argued that the fine, which is a hefty sum of money for anyone, is unreasonable. However, it is essential to realise that we are discussing a man who in 2013 (his latest declared income) made €6,5 million with investments, horse racing, and real estate business. With the Finnish median wage of around €3,400 a month the same deed would have cost some hundreds of euros, as the idea behind the system is to weigh the financial penalty in relation to the financial capacity of the wrongdoer.
Indeed, the idea of ‘progressive fines’ lies behind a rather simple notion of equality and justice. For the impact of a fine to be equal for all, the fine cannot be the same for all. Hence, the fine is tied to one’s income and calculated by using an equation that is the same for all. Thus, technically this system is not even progressive in the same sense taxation can be progressive – the sum of a fine as a percentage of earnings does not significantly change depending on one’s income.
No one forced Kuisla to drive over the speed limit. The fines are there for a reason: to deter people from going against the law. And it is definitely not a case of branding a rich person’s crime somehow worse than others’, but to make the punishment maximally effective for each member of the society. A flat rate €500, for instance, would penalise someone who earns €3,000 a month much more than it would affect someone who makes €9,000 a month. And it would certainly not be an ideal situation to allow a specific – however small – segment of society the option to drive as they wish just because the consequences would hardly show on their bank accounts.
The day-fine system is not an attack against the wealthy, just an attempt to make the effects of the law the same for all. The same principles of fairness and equality that shape a welfare state which tries to create equal opportunities for all with measures such as, universal healthcare and accessible higher education without tuition fees. Alongside Finland, countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states include the day-fine in their jurisdiction.
Kuisla is not the first to have threatened to move out of Finland with his taxpaying wealth if his demands are not met. It is interesting to see how those who have enjoyed the possibilities given by the welfare state are now rolling it back before the eyes of those who come after them, and how the age-old saying still prevails in a misshapen form: ‘if a man is not a socialist in his twenties he has no heart, but if he remains one at his thirties he has no head’. As it seems, in a modern society one must lose compassion – or preferably never have any – to advance and be successful.
Research conducted by Professor Paul Piff on money and its effects on the human psyche has illustrated how wealth correlates with a decrease in the feelings of compassion and empathy. The self-interest and entitlement brought by prosperity appear to have even created a sense of martyrdom for the wealthy in a welfare state. ‘I for one admit that I am greedy’, said Reima Kuisla to Helsingin Sanomat before continuing that the establishment should take better care of its ‘affluent minority’. This lines up rather perfectly with Professor Piff’s findings that the wealthiest share of the society tends to be the one that is likelier to ‘moralise greed being good’. And of course Michael Douglas’ famous line as Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street is as fresh as ever.
Being ambitious does not mean being greedy and egoistic. There is nothing wrong in pursuing wealth and prosperity, but at the same time we need to make sure that the playground is kept relatively equal and fair in terms of opportunities. When money becomes the purpose itself instead of the means to obtain one, we are on thin ice.
Levelling the field to ensure that those at the bottom and those at the top of the social hierarchy do not drift too far apart should be done by means such as fines that are linked to income. It is only unfortunate that some do not share the sense of fairness and demand to be treated according to their self-importance and greed.