Sunday 8 December 2013

Crime and punishment...I mean crime and non-punishment.

For one reason or another, over the last five years I've heard accounts of what might be called 'middle class crime': things to do with contracts, property, building projects and the like. I'm not sure what these things are really called: 'misdemeanours'? 'torts'? 'offences'? or what? They have sometimes involved millions of pounds. As far as I understand, these offences (I'll stick with that term) happen all the time. People engaged in contracts, buying and selling and building often put a good deal of effort into cheating, conning and swindling. People can do this in many different ways: not paying contractors, bribing people who are supposed to arbitrate and hundreds of other methods.

At the end of the day, these are in effect forms of robbing. The offender is trying to either nick money off someone (eg claiming for stuff that they haven't earned) or trying to wangle ways in which they can get more money for a contract than is due them. So, this is robbing.

Now, I may have got this wrong, but as far as I can make out, many of these kinds of offences end up in face-offs, arbitration of some kind, with medium to big companies coming to deals and understandings and then claiming back off insurance companies and the like. In other words, the robbing is not dealt with in the way that robbing is dealt with if I come up to you and grab your wallet.

So what's going on here?

We have a system of justice that is based on what are thought to be ideas that can't be argued with: when the law gets hold of a robber, the law punishes and the usual way for this to be dealt with is prison. Prison, we are told does two things: it punishes and it deters. In other words, the punishment stops the offender doing it again and all the other people out there who might or would rob, are deterred when they hear about the robber who got punished. Now, that is in reality a massive piece of nonsense. Clearly, the punishment principle doesn't work because loads of people re-offend. And the deterrence principle doesn't work because loads of people think that robbing is a good idea. However, any politician who said what I'm saying would be metaphorically burned alive by the press for saying any such thing.

Meanwhile, there is a layer of this middle class robbing which is being dealt with in a completely different way: through arbitration, repayments and fines. An accountant who, let's say, is found to have done some fiddling on a contract or some such, will probably simply be asked to pay up. Then they go on accounting.

Why is this all normal? Why isn't this a publicly paraded disgrace? In a rather complicated speech, King Lear tries to figure this out. The famous bit goes:

"Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it."

In other words, if a crime (or sin) is committed by a rich person (ie gold-plated), the thing we think of as the 'strong lance of justice', just breaks as it hits the 'plate' (or armour) . If the same crime or sin is committed by someone in rags (ie a poor person) 'justice' would immediately be done (in the poetry, a 'straw' thrown by someone as weak as a 'pigmy' would be able to pierce the rags that the poor man wears.

As I say, complicated because of the metaphors but it's clear what Shakespeare is getting Lear to say. And it's a moment of realisation that the ex-King comes to see this mix of hypocrisy and injustice going on.

What's incredible is that this situation is just what I'm trying to describe. If a poor person does some robbing, then the full might of the law - police, lawyers, prisons - comes in to enact a punishment which in the majority of occasions doesn't work anyway. If a fairly rich person (I'm not even talking here about the mega-rich) commits one of these fiddles, wangles, con-jobs, then a completely different system weighs in: arbitrators, tribunals and the like, where lawyers are employed to negotiate agreements between offenders and those offended against. And, as I've said, the end-result of this negotiating apparatus is that the offender won't be locked up. Presumably, that's thought to be inappropriate. Or inconvenient. Or unnecessary.

Just to be clear, I'm not calling for yet more locking up as some kind of pseudo-egalitarianism. That wouldn't solve anything either. For the moment, I'm just pointing out the absurd hypocrisy of it all.

I wish someone who knows much more than me about all this would write a play or a film which would show people involved in all some kind of ironic way. Perhaps it has been done and someone will tell me about it.