My friend Pierre Bessard of Switzlerand’s Liberales Institut has a column in today’s New York Times defending financial privacy from the predations of both international bureaucracies and American tax collectors. Pierre sagely notes that the Swiss system respects the privacy of citizens, unlike the “Orwellian” systems in places like America. This approach results in a very high level of tax compliance in Switzerland, and also provides a refuge for oppressed people around the world:
…for us here in Switzerland, our financial privacy laws are a foundation for individual dignity and basic property rights. Unfortunately, the confidentiality that is the hallmark of Swiss banking is coming under increasing pressure. …Earlier this year, Switzerland was put on a “gray list” by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and threatened with financial sanctions, leading the government to provisionally renegotiate tax agreements with a dozen countries so far. …Switzerland, which is home to an impressive number of global corporations, has also come under fire from the European Union for offering too-favorable tax rules, including exemptions for income earned abroad. But what critics forget is that these practices also benefit other countries. Swiss firms alone employ hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and Germany, for example. Subsidiaries of multinational corporations usually pay income taxes where they operate, so having their headquarters in Switzerland can help companies avoid multiple taxation in high-tax countries, thereby safeguarding productive capital for investment. …We think government exists to serve us, not the other way around. We understand that we have to pay taxes — and we do, with numerous studies showing that the Swiss are extraordinarily honest about paying what we owe — but we do not think it is the government’s role to intrude on our privacy and wrench them from us. This attitude goes back to Switzerland’s founding in the 13th century. The original Swiss communities’ resentment of what they saw as the Hapsburgs’ oppressive taxes helped push them to claim their independence in 1291. Today, Swiss citizens continue to vote on any tax increases in referendums (and sometimes even accept them). These healthy curbs on government contrast with the Orwellian concept of the “transparent citizen” whose every act is known to government. We see our system as a social pact between citizens and the state. Swiss privacy laws help preserve basic property rights. Bank secrecy was introduced in 1934, most notably to protect the identities and assets of Jews in Nazi Germany. …Corruption, expropriation, crime and the persecution of various minorities remain risks in most of the world. For people threatened by such risks, financial privacy can protect their legitimate property. Some would argue that Swiss bank accounts offer the same protections to criminals, but in fact Swiss provisions against money laundering are tough. Swiss bankers are required to know their clients and the origin of the funds they accept. They must alert the regulators if they suspect criminal behavior. Banking confidentiality enjoys overwhelming support in Switzerland. According to the latest annual survey by the polling firm M.I.S. Trend, 78 percent favor maintaining the laws as they are, and 91 percent are shown to value their financial privacy.
I make many of the same points in a three-part video series produced by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. With so-called tax havens under increasing pressure, this is a good time to review The Economic Case for Tax Havens, The Moral Case for Tax Havens, and Tax Havens: Myths v Facts.