Judging from the title of my article today, one might think I will write about the Panama leaks, American politics, and other current events at home and abroad. That wasn’t the real topic when I began thinking about truth in business and life, although I shall write about that in the first part of my article. However, I shall take a broader and more principled perspective than what is usually done – and a more understanding perspective, too, not wanting to judge the actors in the international systems we have all agreed upon.

Since I don’t have enough space in today’s article, I shall in a future one write more about the fundamental aspects of truth and falsehood as we practice them in our lives and business, whether we are ordinary or extraordinary people; politicians, secular and religious leaders, scientists, lawyers, judges, business people, and others.

How is the culture of truth and falsehood in our time and in history? Does it vary from one country and culture to another, from one workplace to another, from private sector to government, from one church and mosque to the next? How much is based on traditions, customs and conventions – yes, to such an extent that what we consider true and right is relative? Let us state that it is not only secondhand car dealers or horse traders that have their own business rules and ethics. Maybe we all do, as long as it benefits ourselves, and there are many rationalisations and justifications for what we do; we may say that the means justifies the end.

We have all heard about businessmen and businessmen stashing away part of their fortune in Swiss bank accounts. In recent years, we have become quite obsessed with the tax havens in countries like Panama. There are many such places and they are part of the agreed international financial and economic system that rules the world. Of course, only those who own or run big companies use tax havens.

In my home country Norway, it was revealed in connection with the Panama leaks that one ship owner had a large number of companies registered in Panama. He was only one of a number of Norwegians using the facility, and Norway is one of the most regulated and transparent countries in the world. What the ship owner I have in mind did was not illegal; it was just part of the international ways we allow business to be carried out. I believe most of those who use the facility, simply do it because it has major financial advantages. Sometimes, it is for whitewashing of money, but that is another matter, which I don’t focus on in my article; that is similar to the secret accounts in Switzerland that were quite common in the past. African presidents and others siphoned off wealth to such places, as a safety net if they were toppled – and many were.

Why do we allow tax havens? I believe the reasons have to do with class and verticality in economic and social structures in the world – and we accept that the world is like that, without a level playing field for all. So, there is, or was, one law for the top strata of society, the pillars of society, and one for the rest. In theory, and maybe in practice, too, the money that the rich sent off to tax havens would be re-invested, even used for innovation and inventions, creating new wealth and new jobs opportunities for people – and, obviously, more profit for the rich owners of the Panama companies. If you and I were among the economic elite, belonging to the super-rich and sub-sectors of the group, most of us would probably have taken advantage of the tax havens, too. Sometimes it is easier to be poor, so we don’t have to consider doing things that we in our culture and community find wrong.

I have in an earlier article written that the fact that we allow tax havens makes it difficult to criticise those who actually do use such facilities in Panama, Jersey, Cyprus or wherever they are. Many would criticise those who use such facilities, on moral grounds, but that is changing the rules during the game, and it is also drawing conclusions about a part of the capitalist system that few have much knowledge about. In future, we need to clean up the system and make it more transparent, but the rules cannot be retroactive. Let me add, too, that capitalism in general needs much tighter regulations and rules in many fields. In the end, benefits of economic activities belong to all citizens, not only those who created profit.

It has been about a decade since the international financial and banking crisis, and many rules remain the same, allowing the business tycoons to become even richer, yet, again. Last week, I read that an expert, who predicted Iceland’s bank crisis and the country’s near-bankruptcy in 2008, warned that it could happen again to that land since regulation and control systems are still not good enough.

It is interesting that Panama is listed at the top of the registry of ship tonnage of the world’s merchant fleet; earlier, my small home country Norway was among the top shipping nations in the world, along with big countries like Japan, UK and USA. But since the 1960s, many ship owners ‘flagged out’ and registered their ships for convenience where taxes are low and secrecy high. Thus, a proud backbone of Norway’s economy became less proud and nationalistic; and ship owners were sometimes so wealthy that they could be beneficiaries, employers and builders of whole towns with statutes in bronze in the main city square.

Today, shipping is international and everyone register their ships were the profit is highest; sailors are no longer from Norwegian towns and villages, but from countries in the south were salary demands are modest. That is bad for employment of sailors from my home country, but it can be good for sailors from other countries. Anecdotally, let me mention that I have had the pleasure of meeting Pakistani sailors on Norwegian ships, including one impressive captain and a chief engineer. I don’t know where the ships were registered, and to an extent, it doesn’t matter either. As long as our world order is capitalist – the capital moves freely; people may and goods may not. Money has no colour and conscience; it flies like birds with the wind and settles where the profit is highest. And then, am I too lax and lenient, siding with power rather than people? Maybe, but business principles, indeed the world capitalist order is not based on truth, ethics and moral standards. It has its own principles and standards, and they are still mostly above politics and faith. Truth and falsehood become relative in an international world that we human beings have made. Can all this change? Yes, but that you must think about, and I promise to ponder on it in future articles, humbling trying to make my modest contributions.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com