The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about a London fund manager who was given a lifetime ban from the financial industry by British regulators. The regulators determined that Jonathan Burrows was “not fit and proper.”

“Fit and proper.” How very British.

What lack of integrity led to such a harsh penalty? Insider trading? Ponzi scheme? Tax evasion? Mr. Burrows was engaged in fraud, but it’s of a surprising sort. He’d been underpaying his train tickets.

Mr. Burrows thought that he had found a way to game the system. He paid only £7.20 for his daily commuter-train fare, rather than the actual fare of £21.50. The train company estimated that he had avoided paying £43,000—an amount that would cover over six years worth of commuting. Mr. Burrows claims that he defrauded the company much less, only occasionally paying the wrong fare.

After being caught, Mr. Burrows settled with the train company and paid them the £43,000. Even so, the financial regulators handed him their stiffest sanction, the lifetime ban. Is £43,000 worth a lifetime ban from one’s industry? It sounds like a lot of money to me, but it probably isn’t that much for these City of London types.

What’s behind such a stiff sentence? Maybe it has something to do with Britain’s class-consciousness. The director of an investment fund cannot be seen as being above the law; he must follow the same rules that the plebes do. I think, however, that the ban has more to do with contemporary society’s truncated public morality.

Very few things are still considered immoral. Maybe fare-dodging is all we have left.

What does it mean to be “fit and proper”? Once upon a time, we might consider someone’s religious convictions and the state of their family. These aspects of a person’s life, however, have been cordoned off as private matters. What if British regulators banned divorced bankers because they were “not fit and proper”? Haven’t they engaged in marital fraud?

We think that a pattern of avoiding the full train fare demonstrates serious character flaws, but maybe we’re overreacting because we live in a moral vacuum. Sexual ethics have been privatized to the point of nonexistence. We’ve sacrificed the family on the altar of self. Too often we literally sacrifice the family in the form of abortion. There’s not much that society will call immoral. But we have fare dodging. We know that’s wrong.

And it is wrong, but without a robust public morality, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of proportion. We tolerate so much immorality that we tend to release pent up outrage on more trivial infractions.

The British regulators lost their sense of proportion, so Jonathan Burrows received a lifetime ban from an industry in which he had an otherwise spotless twenty-year career. It’s funny though—the train company managed to maintain its sense of proportion. It hasn’t banned him, even though it could have. He’s more than welcome as long as he pays for his ticket.

Collin Garbarino is assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University

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