Magazine article The Spectator

Second Opinion

Magazine article The Spectator

Second Opinion

Article excerpt

It is received wisdom that the payment of tax by the very rich is voluntary. I don't know any such person myself, because I move mainly among people of the middling sort for whom taxation is lamentably compulsory; indeed, in my professional life at least I am more likely to meet the kind of person who pays no tax because, when asked what work he performs, he furrows his brow in puzzlement and says that he does not understand the question. Work, what is work? I have found that if you don't know what work is, it is rather difficult to explain.

Just as taxation is voluntary for the rich, so imprisonment is voluntary for the criminal. You probably know many people whose house has been burgled or who have been robbed on the street, but very few, if any, who have had the satisfaction of knowing that the perpetrator has been caught. Yet there are many burglars in prison, as I can attest. How is this paradox to be resolved? The answer is that burglars who go to prison want to be caught, for without their co-operation the police can or will do nothing.

Last week, there was a patient on our ward who had taken the traditional celebratory overdose of heroin after his release from prison. (This is a tradition that dates back at least eight years, so it is now deeply etched upon the national character.) He didn't look evil, just slightly vacant. He was 21 years old.

'How many times have you been in prison?' I asked.

'Eight,' he said.

'Can I ask you something?' I said. 'Do you prefer it in prison? …

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