‘You’re not drunk, if you can lie on the floor without holding on.’ Dean Martin’s witticism has haunted me over the last couple of years as I have watched the impending self-destruction of the country of my birth (Brexit, the inevitability of a future Corbyn government), the temporary set-back to the United States (The Donald, the quack Republican leadership), and the reckless election of a National Assembly of Jeanny-come-latelys in France to rubber-stamp a completely untried new president. The world is becoming totally sozzled (heaven knows what is going to happen in the German and Italian elections) – and the tipple is the obsessive thirst of the mob for raw ‘knowledge’ that is used and abused to satisfy a primeval urge to thump those who thought they were in power.
It is no surprise that the parallel tax world is not immune to this troubling phenomenon.
Back in the good old days (four years ago, to be precise), when the British had a stable government and the Americans had a president who could string two words together without having to resort to ‘great’, the G20 of (then) sane countries instructed the sane OECD to come up with a sane framework for combatting tax avoidance and evasion, while individual members came up with a few ideas of their own. This call to action came in the wake of disclosures of perceived unsavory international profit shifting by certain multi-nationals. BEPS Action 13, dealing with Transfer Pricing, and the Automatic Exchange of Information had one thing in common – information was to be exchanged discretely between the tax arms of governments who would give it their expert attention.
Even then, there was a small breach in the wall of discrete sanity– Cameron decided on a Beneficial Ownership Register OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. It has been downhill ever since.
The EU Parliament – about which Kipling might have said: ‘Power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’ – this month legislated for PUBLIC AVAILABILITY of multinationals’ country-by-country transfer pricing reporting, as well as recently delivering on Cameron’s dream of an open Beneficial Ownership Register.
If you are not a tax specialist, this may all seem eminently sensible. Make public as much information as possible, and then use the public sphere to bash the avoiders and evaders to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of tax. You are in good company – Brexit, Trump, Corbyn and Republique-En-Marche seem eminently sensible to large swathes of the populations of three of the most advanced nations on Planet Earth. But, my hunch is that most of the discerning people reading this don’t think much of the large swathes.
There is a fundamental problem here. Feeding the mob with incomplete information, or information they are not programmed to fully analyze, will create distortions that are bound to affect the efficiency of the markets, and lead to loss of privacy in totally legitimate situations. In short, public, populist, semi-informed opinion will almost certainly get it wrong. Is tax planning automatically wrong, even when it (legally) irons out patent errors in half-baked legislation? Do a Scandanavian’s potential in-laws need to know how much money he has when planning a wedding? Is hiding ownership from public view undesirable in countries where ‘kidnapper’ is a school leaver’s career opportunity? Far better to leave it to the regulatory authorities (tax or banking) of the world’s nations to share and compute the information, and do the work of their masters, the representative governments. It is in the interest of each state to ensure they receive their fair share of revenues, while clamping down on money-laundering. Can Mob Rule beat that?
Alexander Pope said: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, Dean Martin’s Ratpack colleague sang: ‘I planned each charted course; Each careful step along the byway.’ The world could do worse than heed the words of both gentlemen.