Dan Mitchell: Patriotism, Loyalty, Tax Competition, and ‘Tax Fugitives’

Dan Mitchell: Patriotism, Loyalty, Tax Competition, and ‘Tax Fugitives’

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Originally posted @ Cato by Daniel J. Mitchell

I fight to preserve tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy for the simple reason that politicians are less likely to impose destructive tax policy if they know that labor and capital can escape to jurisdictions with more responsible fiscal climates.

My opponents in this battle are high-tax governments, statist international bureaucracies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and left-wing pressure groups, all of which want to impose some sort of global tax cartel—sort of an “OPEC for politicians.”

In my years of fighting this battle, I’ve has some strange experiences, most notably in 2008 when the OECD threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the supposed crime of standing in a public area of a hotel and advising representatives of low-tax jurisdictions on how best to resist fiscal imperialism.

A few other bizarre episodes occurred in Barbados, back when I was first getting involved in the issue. Here’s a summary of that adventure.

As part of its “harmful tax competition” project, the OECD had called a meeting in 2001 and invited officials from the so-called tax havens to attend in hopes of getting them to surrender their fiscal sovereignty and agree to become deputy tax collectors for uncompetitive welfare states.

Realizing that the small, relatively powerless low-tax nations and territories would be out-gunned and out-manned in such a setting, I organized a delegation of liberty-minded Americans to travel to Barbados and help fight back (as regular readers know, I’m willing to make big sacrifices and go to the Caribbean when it’s winter in Washington).

One of the low-tax nations asked me to provide technical assistance, so they made me part of their delegation. But when I got to the OECD conference, the bureaucrats refused to let me participate. That initial obstacle was overcome, though, when representatives from the low-tax country arrived and they created a stink.

So I got my credentials and went into the conference. But this obviously caused some consternation. Bureaucrats from the OECD and representatives from the Clinton Treasury Department (this was before Bush’s inauguration)  began whispering to each other, followed by some OECD flunky coming over to demand my credentials. I showed my badge, which temporarily stymied the bad guys.

But then a break was called and the OECD announced that the conference couldn’t continue if I was in the room. The fact that the OECD and some of the high-tax nations had technical consultants of their own was immaterial. The conference was supposed to be rigged to generate a certain outcome, and my presence was viewed as a threat.

Given the way things were going, with the OECD on the defensive and low-tax jurisdictions unwilling to capitulate, we decided to let the bureaucrats have a symbolic victory—especially since all that really happened is that I sat outside the conference room and representatives from the low-tax jurisdictions would come out every few minutes and brief me on what was happening. And everything ended well, with the high-tax nations failing in their goal of getting low-tax jurisdictions to surrender by signing “commitment letters” drafted by the OECD.

While the controversy over my participation in the meeting was indicative of the OECD’s unethical and biased behavior, the weirdest part of the Barbados trip occurred at the post-conference reception at the prime minister’s residence.

I was feeling rather happy about the OECD’s failure, so I was enjoying the evening. But not everybody was pleased with the outcome. One of the Clinton Treasury Department officials came up and basically accused me of being disloyal to the United States because I opposed the administration’s policy while on foreign soil.

As you can probably imagine, that was not an effective argument. As this t-shirt indicates, my patriotism is to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, not to the statist actions of the U.S. government. And I also thought it was rather silly for the Treasury Department bureaucrat to make that argument when there was only a week or so left before Clinton was leaving office.

I’m reminded of this bit of personal history because of some recent developments in the area of international taxation.

The federal government recently declared that a Swiss bank is a “fugitive” because it refuses to acquiesce to American tax law and instead is obeying Switzerland’s admirable human rights policy of protecting financial privacy. Here are some details from a report by Reuters.

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, was declared a fugitive after failing to show up in a U.S. court to answer a criminal charge that it conspired to help wealthy Americans evade taxes. …The indictment of Wegelin, which was founded in 1741, was the first in which the United States accused a foreign bank, rather than individuals, of helping Americans commit tax fraud. …Wegelin issued a statement from Switzerland saying it has not been served with a criminal summons and therefore was not required to appear in court. “The circumstances create a clear dilemma for Wegelin & Co,” it said. “If it were to adhere to current U.S. legal practice aimed at Swiss banks, it would have to breach Swiss law.” …Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland.

It’s time for me to again be unpatriotic because I’m on the side of the “fugitive.” To be blunt, a Swiss bank operating on Swiss soil has no obligation to enforce bad U.S. tax law.

To understand the principles at stake, let’s turn the tables. What if the Iranian government demanded that the American government extradite Iranian exiles who write articles critical of that country’s leadership? Would the Justice Department agree that the Iranian government had the right to persecute and prosecute people who didn’t break U.S. law? Of course not (at least I hope not!).

Or what if the Chinese government requested the extradition of Tiananmen Square protesters who fled to the United States? Again, I would hope the federal government would say to go jump in a lake because it’s not a crime in America to believe in free speech.

I could provide dozens of additional examples, but I assume you get the point. Nations only cooperate with each other when they share the same laws (and the same values, including due process legal protections).

This is why Wegelin is not cooperating with the United States government, and this is why genuine patriots who believe in the rule of law should be on the side of the “fugitive.”

For further information, here’s a video I narrated on tax competition.

The moral of the story is that “tough on crime” is the right approach, but only when laws are just. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Internal Revenue Code does not meet that test—especially when the IRS is trying to enforce it in a grossly improper extraterritorial fashion.