Why is combating tax evasion so important in the globalisation debate? Atlanticists have been looking far and wide for ways to resuscitate the transatlantic relationship and give it a much-needed energy boost. They have looked at ganging up against China or at coalescing over the shale gas revolution.
And yet, for all the intensity of their search, they only stumbled upon what, in this age of globalisation, may easily prove to be the most effective way to underline the ongoing relevance of intensive policy co-operation between Europe and the US in the eyes of the public at large.
As the result of what are two investigative accidents of history, an epoch-making transatlantic (if not yet global) battle against tax evasion has been joined.
Better yet, unlike what happens so often on such a controversial issue, this is not a transatlantic battle over tax evasion (where both sides find themselves at diametrically opposed ends), but a common crusade against tax evasion.
The two dots in the global landscape were, first, the Bradley Birkenfeld whistleblower case. The former UBS private banker started to tell on his bank’s illegal practices regarding its US clients by providing the US Internal Revenue Service with disks that contained their names.
The second dot was a series of CDs with banking customer data detailing tax evasion cases, mainly in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. These data sets were offered for sale to the proper authorities in Europe, predominantly in Germany.
Legally dubious or self-interested as these data sharers’ actions may have been, they did lead to the desired public policy result. They caused many more wealthy people, ex post facto, to comply speedily with US, German and other nations’ tax laws under the amnesty terms offered.
And they may have turned the tide against the shady practice as such.
Tax evasion is no longer considered a “gentleman’s crime”, worthy of no more than a slap on the wrist, if that.
The people that triggered this budding revolution were not exactly Robin Hoods. But they did bring about a crucial – and much-needed – element of creating economic and social justice.
If someone brings to account thousands of people who are wealthy enough to avail themselves of what at best are artful tax “circumvention” services, that is to be welcomed.
After all, we live in an era when the rapid integration of the global economy causes great stresses in the lives of many people around the world.
Manufacturing workers, regardless of location and nationality, can lose their jobs in large numbers if the facility where they are employed is no longer productive enough. And in many a country, social benefits are being trimmed constantly, in an effort to make the welfare state sustainable during conditions of rapid population aging.
Under such circumstances, it is politically explosive – and in a democracy ultimately self-defeating – to let some individuals go on in their belief that they, unlike most regular tax-paying citizens, do not really have to play by the rules.
In such a world, it is pivotal that people live and operate under the same set of rules. There cannot be one set for all regular wage earners, who have their taxes and other charges automatically withdrawn from their monthly wages, and another set for people who enjoy great “flexibility”.
True enough, there is a whole raft of prominent banking institutions, accounting firms and law firms – never mind the myriad shady operators in this field with much lesser names and completely dubious reputations – who make a rich living indeed from setting up and operating this netherworld of tax evasion.
But their activities do not happen in a social and political vacuum. Economic globalisation has brought about a significant increase in terms of income inequality in most Western societies. That is even true in countries that traditionally put more emphasis on equality and solidarity, as is the case throughout Scandinavia.
When that happens, public policy must take appropriate measures to ensure a clear sense of tax fairness and equity in domestic society. And if the effort to ensure that requires resorting to extraordinary and, yes, in the minds of some, illegal measures, then that is simply what is required.
The law is never an absolute category. It is ultimately the codification of a set of moral choices between various layers of conflict situations, as they are either known or anticipated to exist.
When tax authorities can obtain information that penetrates the otherwise impenetrable world of tax evasion, then clearly any government acts within its proper rights if it chooses to enforce against the truly immoral choice.
That truly immoral choice is not paying one’s proper tax obligations, as required under the public laws of the land, no matter how clever, conniving and reassuring one’s bankers, lawyers and accountants are.
In such cases, it is immoral, and ultimately illegal, to protect the tax offenders for their claimed right to “privacy” or, more stupefying yet, protection under the “rule of law”.
Anybody seriously considering the alternative just needs to ask this question: what happens to the internal fabric and moral fibre of a society where the vast majority plays by the rules (if only because they have no other choice), but a very small minority, already privileged with a high level of economic success, does not?
Under those circumstances, how can even the most basic notions of social and economic equity and fairness be upheld?
Is it desirable in any conceivable way to have such an unfortunate separation – between the law-abiding “losers” who are merely treading in place (that is, the many) and those who consider themselves above the law (that is, the few)?
If the answer to any of those questions is no, then one must act accordingly.
It is issues such as combating tax evasion that give the all-important, but abstract sounding goal of advancing the broader cause of global governance its real-life meaning.
Proper governance in the fields of global finance and the global economy means more than just rectifying the voting right in international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, overdue as that rectification is.
For this important endeavour to find resonance among the wider public, the reform efforts must yield effects in their daily lives.
Combating tax evasion is precisely such an issue and a cause. It promotes the sense of fairness and a lived practice by all citizens to operate under the same rules and be wedded to advancing the life opportunities of all citizens and not just the most fortunate ones.
Few things are more vital to promoting and sustaining democracy over the long haul.
* Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist.