Tag: Jurisdictional Competition

The Great Tax Haven Debate, Part II

Back in April, responding to an article written by Ann Hollingshead for the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development, I wrote a long post defending so-called tax havens.

I went through the trouble of a point-by-point response because her article was quite reasonable and focused on some key moral and philosophical issues (rather than the demagoguery I normally have to deal with when people on the left reflexively condemn low-tax jurisdictions).

She responded to my response, and she raised additional points that deserve to be answered.

So here we go again. Let’s go through Ann’s article and see where we agree and disagree.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing the philosophies of Dan Mitchell, a libertarian scholar from the Cato Institute. I asked for a “thoughtful discussion” and I got it—both from the comments section of our blog and from Dan himself.  On his own blog, Dan replied with a thought-provoking point-by-point critique of my piece.

It has been a polite discussion, which is good because readers get to see that we don’t really disagree on facts. Our differences are a matter of philosophy, as Ann also acknowledges.

Dan made several interesting points in his rebuttal. As much as I’d like to take on the whole post right now, my reply would be far too long and I don’t think our readers would appreciate a blog post that approaches a novella. Rather I’ll focus on a couple of his comments that I find interesting on a philosophical level (there were many) and which demand a continued conversation because, I believe, they are the basis of our differences. We’ll start with a rather offhand remark in which Dan indirectly refers to financial privacy as a human right. This is an argument we’ve heard before. And it is worth some exploration.Unless I am very much mistaken, Dan’s belief that financial privacy is a human right arises out of his fundamental value of freedom. My disagreement with Dan, therefore, does not arise from a difference in the desire to promote human rights (I believe we both do), but rather in the different relative weights we each place on the value of privacy, which Dan (I’m supposing) would call an extension of freedom.

I wouldn’t argue with her outline, though I think it is incomplete. I’m a big fan of privacy as a principle of a civil and just society, but I also specifically support financial privacy as a means to an end of encouraging better tax policy. Simply stated, politicians are much more likely to reduce or eliminate double taxation if they feel such taxes can’t be enforced and simply put a country in a much less competitive position.

Okay, so on to [my] answer of the subject of this post. Privacy—and financial privacy by extension—is important. But is it a human right? That’s a big phrase; one which humanity has no business throwing around, lest it go the way of “[fill in blank]-gate” or “war on [whatever].” And as Dan himself points out, governments have a way of fabricating human rights—apparently some European courts have ruled that free soccer broadcasts and owning a satellite dish are a human rights—so it’s important that we get back to [philosophical] basics and define the term properly. The nearly universally accepted definition of “human rights” was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. According to the UN, “human rights” are those “rights inherent to all human beings,” regardless of “nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” The Declaration includes 30 Articles which describe each of those rights in detail. “Financial privacy” per se is not explicitly a human right in this document, but “privacy” is, and I think it’s reasonable to include financial privacy by extension. But privacy is defined as a fundamental, not an absolute, human right. Absolute rights are those that there is never any justification for violating. Fundamental freedoms, including privacy and freedom from detention, can be ethically breached by the government, as long as they authorized by law and not arbitrary in practice. The government therefore has the right to regulate fundamental freedoms when necessary.

I’m not sure how to react. There are plenty of admirable provisions in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but there are also some nonsensical passages - some of which completely contradict others.

Everyone hopefully agrees with the provisions against slavery and in favor of equality under law, but Article 25 of the U.N. Declaration also includes “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

That sounds like a blank check for redistributionism, similar to the statism that I experienced when I spoke at the U.N. last month, and it definitely seems inconsistent with the right of property in Article 17.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t care that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a “right to privacy” because I don’t view that document as having any legal or moral validity. I don’t know whether it’s as bad as the European Union’s pseudo-constitution, but I do know that my support for privacy is not based on or dependent on a document from the United Nations.

As an aside, I can’t help noting that Articles 13 and 15 of the U.N. Declaration guarantee the right to emigrate and the right to change nationality, somethings leftists should keep in mind when they demonize successful people who want to move to nations with better tax law.

Getting back to Ann’s column, she confirms my point that you can’t protect property rights for some people while simultaneously giving other people a claim on their output.

That’s important because it means, that when it comes to freedom and privacy, we need to make choices. We can’t always have them all at once. To use a hideously crude example that gets back to the issue of tax evasion, in a developing country, a rich person’s right to financial privacy might be at odds with a poor person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

For those who are not familiar with the type of discussion, it is the difference between “negative rights” promoted by classical liberals, which are designed to protect life, liberty, and property from aggression, and the “positive rights” promoted by the left, which are designed to legitimize the redistributionist state.

Tom Palmer has a good discussion of the topic here, and he notes that “positive rights” create conflict, writing that, “…classical liberal ‘negative’ rights do not conflict with each other, whereas ‘positive’ rights to be provided with things produce many conflicts. If my ‘right to health care’ conflicts with a doctor’s ‘right to liberty,’ which one wins out?”

Continuing with Ann’s article, she says values conflict with one another, though that’s only if true if one believes in positive rights.

I started this post with a discussion of values, because at the core that’s what we’re talking about. Values are relative, individual, and often in conflict with one another. And they define how we rank our choices between human rights. Dan values freedom, perhaps above most else. He might argue that economic freedom would lead to an enrichment of human rights at all levels, but he probably wouldn’t disagree that that thesis remains untested. My views are a little more complicated because I don’t get to enjoy the (albeit appealing and consistent) simplicity of libertarianism.

I’m tempted to say, “C’mon in, Ann, the water’s fine. Libertarianism is lots of fun.” To be a bit more serious, libertarianism is simple, but it’s not simplistic. You get to promote freedom and there’s no pressure to harass, oppress, or pester other people.

As my colleague David Boaz has stated, “You could say that you learn the essence of libertarianism — which is also the essence of civilization –  in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, keep your promises.”

The world would be a lot better if more people rallied to this non-coercive system.

One more point. Dan mentioned he does “fully comply” with the “onerous demands imposed on [him] by the government.” But as Dan insinuates, irrespective of an individual’s personal values, those demands are not optional. In the United States, we have the luxury of electing a group of individuals to represent our collective values. Together those people make a vision for the country that reflects our ideals. And then, we all accept it. If our country got together and decided to value freedom above all else, we would live in a world that looks a lot like Dan’s utopia. But, frankly, it hasn’t. So we respect our tax code out of a respect for the vision of our country. Dan has the right to try to shape that vision, as do I. Neither of us has the right to violate it.

What Ann writes is true, but not persuasive. Libertarians don’t like untrammeled majoritarianism. We don’t think two wolves and a sheep should vote on what’s for lunch.

We like what our Founding Fathers devised, a constitutional republic where certain rights were inalienable and protected by the judicial system, regardless of whether 90 percent of voters want to curtail our freedoms.

Ann, as you can see from her final passage, does not agree.

That, at is heart, is my problem with both tax evasion and tax avoidance. Neither lines up with the spirit of our collective compact; although the latter is not necessarily reflected in the official laws on the books. I’m not saying tax avoiders should be thrown in jail; they’ve done nothing illegal. I’m saying the regulations that confine us should line up with the vision we’ve created and the values we’ve agreed upon. If that vision is Dan’s, I’ll accept it. But I’m glad he’ll (begrudgingly) accept ours too.

I’m not automatically against having a “collective compact.” After all, that’s one way of describing the American Constitution. But I will return to my point about America’s founders setting up that system precisely because they rejected majoritarianism.

So what does all this mean? Probably nothing, other than the less-than-remarkable revelation that Ann and I have different views on the legitimate role(s) of the federal government.

Since I want to restrain the size and scope of government (not only in America, but elsewhere in the world) and avert future Greek-style fiscal nightmares, that means I want tax competition. And, to be truly effective, that means tax havens.

If that appeals to you (or at least seems like a reasonably hypothesis), I invite you to read some writings by Allister Heath of the United Kingdom and Pierre Bessard of Switzerland.

Are Tax Havens Moral or Immoral?

Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

For instance, the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance — even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policymakers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

As I’ve already explained in a post about a certain senator from North Dakota, a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. President Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Let’s see what else Vallely has to say:

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

  • Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?
  • Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?
  • Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?
  • Entrepreneurs in regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?
  • Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?
  • Homosexuals in homophobic regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world who are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

Vallely is apparently unaware of these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations:

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice.

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution — government — that is the largest source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, Vallely does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth.

…Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

He can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, Vallely offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote: the most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left: the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year — far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including Vallely’s confusion of tax evasion with tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Consider some real-world evidence: The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug:

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them.

Here’s some more evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get.

…[B]usinesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.”

…Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

It’s worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government:

[T]he Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be amoral.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues:

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions:

New Paper Explains Why Low-Tax Jurisdictions Should Resist OECD Attacks against Tax Competition and Fiscal Sovereignty

One of the biggest threats against global prosperity is the anti-tax competition project of a Paris-based international bureaucracy known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD, acting at the behest of the European welfare states that dominate its membership, wants the power to tell nations (including the United States!) what is acceptable tax policy.

I’ve previously explained why the OECD is a problematic institution - especially since American taxpayers are forced to squander about $100 million per year to support the parasitic bureaucracy.

For all intents and purposes, high-tax nations want to create a global tax cartel, sort of an “OPEC for politicians.” This issue is increasingly important since politicians from those countries realize that all their overspending has created a fiscal crisis and they are desperate to figure out new ways of imposing higher tax rates. I don’t exaggerate when I say that stopping this sinister scheme is absolutely necessary for the future of liberty.

Along with Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, I just wrote a paper about these issues. The timing is especially important because of an upcoming “Global Forum” where the OECD will try to advance its mission to prop up uncompetitive welfare states. Here’s the executive summary, but I encourage you to peruse the entire paper for lots of additional important info.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an ongoing anti-tax competition project. This effort is designed to prop up inefficient welfare states in the industrialized world, thus enabling those governments to impose heavier tax burdens without having to fear that labor and capital will migrate to jurisdictions with better tax law. This project received a boost a few years ago when the Obama Administration joined forces with countries such as France and Germany, which resulted in all low-tax jurisdictions agreeing to erode their human rights policies regarding financial privacy. The tide is now turning against high-tax nations – particularly as more people understand that ever-increasing fiscal burdens inevitably lead to Greek-style fiscal collapse. Political changes in the United States further complicate the OECD’s ability to impose bad policy. Because of these developments, low-tax jurisdictions should be especially resistant to new anti-tax competition initiatives at the Bermuda Global Forum.

To understand why this issue is so important, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.


And here’s a shorter video on the same subject, narrated by Natasha Montague from Americans for Tax Reform.

Last but not least, here’s a video where I explain why the OECD is a big waste of money for American taxpayers.

Tax Lawyers, Tax Complexity, and the Broader Problem of a Self-Serving Legal Profession

The Internal Revenue Code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most qoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior - whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group - including lawyers - to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

The IMF Is Urging Governments to Impose Regulatory and Tax Cartels to Benefit Politicians

Price fixing is illegal in the private sector, but unfortunately there are no rules against schemes by politicians to create oligopolies in order to prop up bad government policy. The latest example comes from the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund, who are conspiring with national governments to impose higher taxes and regulations on the banking sector. The pampered bureaucrats at the IMF (who get tax-free salaries while advocating higher taxes on the rest of us) say these policies are needed because of bailouts, yet such an approach would institutionalize moral hazard by exacerbating the government-created problem of “too big to fail.”

But what is particularly disturbing about the latest IMF scheme is that the international bureaucracy wants to coerce all nations into imposing high taxes and excessive regulation. The bureaucrats realize that if some nations are allowed to have free markets, jobs and investment would flow to those countries and expose the foolishness of the bad policy being advocated elsewhere by the IMF. Here’s a brief excerpt from a report in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said there was broad agreement on the need for consensus and coordination in the reform of the global financial sector. “Even if they don’t follow exactly the same rule, they have to follow rules which will not be in conflict,” he said. He said there were still major differences of opinion on how to proceed, saying that countries whose banking systems didn’t need taxpayer bailouts weren’t willing to impose extra taxation on their banks now, to create a cushion against further financial shocks. …Mr. Strauss-Kahn said the overriding goal was to prevent “regulatory arbitrage”—the migration of banks to places where the burden of tax and regulation is lightest. He said countries with tighter regulation of banks might be able to justify not imposing new taxes.

I’ve been annoyingly repetitious on the importance of making governments compete with each other, largely because the evidence showing that jurisdictional rivalry is a very effective force for good policy around the world. I’ve done videos showing the benefits of tax competition, videos making the economic and moral case for tax havens, and videos exposing the myths and demagoguery of those who want to undermine tax competition. I’ve traveled around the world to fight the international bureaucracies, and even been threatened with arrest for helping low-tax nations resist being bullied by high-tax nations. Simply stated, we need jurisdictional competition so that politicians know that taxpayers can escape fiscal oppression. In the absence of external competition, politicians are like fiscal alcoholics who are unable to resist the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

This is why the IMF’s new scheme should be rejected. It is not the job of international bureaucracies to interfere with the sovereign right of nations to determine their own tax and regulatory policies. If France and Germany want to adopt statist policies, they should have that right. Heck, Obama wants America to make similar mistakes. But Hong Kong, Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, and other market-oriented jurisdictions should not be coerced into adopting the same misguided policies.