There is a joke that started making rounds on social media in the wake of the social media tax.
Picked from an American press, a cartoonist depicts a conversation between a young man and his father.
The son informs his father that he was “considering a career in organised crime.” The dad, who earlier had been engrossed in newspapers, turns to his son and sharply asks: “government or private?” Before the young man offers a response, the old man adds, “I personally would suggest government. They never go to jail.”
The punch in this joke is the seemingly outrageous proposition that the muggers on the streets, the iron-bar hitmen, murderers, robbers, rapists, and chicken thieves are not different from government – all are criminals.
The difference is that while one is a criminal with the backing of the law, the others pursue their careers as members of the private sector and risk rotting in jail once caught.
The joke also proposes that crime has become a mainstream activity with potential for a career – if organised and executed properly. The cartoon also explicitly suggests that once an activity is mathematically and economically valuable, its criminality, if any, fades in comparison to its benefits. Do not forget to secure legal backing before execution.
But when does an action become crime? The usual understanding – especially from our so-called learned friends – is that it becomes crime only when it violates the law of the land. But will it still be crime if it is within the law?
The answer is no. How then do government actions ensconced in the law become crime? The answer to this lies outside the law. Note, however, that the law is often a compilation of the interests of lawyers and merchants.
Genocides have been ensconced in the law. Apartheid was legal. Slavery enjoyed both legal and religious backing. The merits of colonialism were debated in parliaments across Europe. Thus, it is a crime not simply because it violates the law, but our shared humanity – which is a product of natural conditioning and history.
My friends, journalists Andrew Mwenda and Timothy Kalyegira, have a penchant for ridiculing counter-arguments as moral arguments so as to render them null and void.
Their beggy position is that arguments have been scientifically and historically grounded. Any other arguments – say based on religious sensibilities, claims to culture or simply emotions – are outright clumsy.
So, when mobile money and social media tax arrived, those who opposed it were scorned for engaging in sheer moralizing, bereft of cogent reasoning.
My sense is that the duo’s knowledge of morality – as a force and discourse – which they often juxtapose against enlightenment reasoning, is itself clumsy.
Alexander Pope was right, “ A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring: there shallow droughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” Let me engage these friends of mine in a little theorizing and historicising.
Human relations are moral transactions. Thus, the most binding part of any contract is that which is never written. Honesty, trust, and rectitude do not have an orthography to be captured on paper.
To this end, I am eternally fascinated by Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he argues that all human engagement happens in a moral context. We find happiness in the happiness of others: “That we derive sorrow from the sorrow of others is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it,” Smith wrote.
He added that this feeling of sympathy – like all original passions – is not confined to the virtuous and humane. Even the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
Contrapuntally, the emptiness and violence of Kantian Enlightenment, which brought us slave trade and colonialism, two world wars, nuclear weapons, capitalism, and most recently global warming – all of these favourably sanctioned by the law – has made scientific reasoning a terrible option to morality.
It is also problematic rendering morality and science as dichotomous. Indeed, distancing morality is a major handicap to scientific advancement.
Therefore, the criticism to the mobile money and social media tax is not about their utility or economic value. Rather, the moral wreckage of these taxes is acutely manifested as organised crime.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.