Haven Is A Place On Earth

The BBC is making (not reporting) the news again, to the delight of high-taxing politicians. The fact that some chum of Putin has parked (presumably) ill-gotten millions in Panama provides a convenient excuse to close down low-tax jurisdictions. And the idea that rich folks like David Cameron’s dad save tax by sending their cash abroad stimulates enough public envy to provide the support.

The two are different, of course. Theft, fraud, tax evasion and money-laundering are rightly illegal: any firm or country that helps mafia bosses or dictators conceal stolen millions should be exposed and punished. But if you work within the rules and find ways to cut your tax bill, or invest your money in some place where it won’t be taxed within an inch of its life, that is legal and should remain so. Indeed, low-tax jurisdictions act as a safety valve that makes it harder for politicians to oppress their citizens with crippling taxes. 

But it is too easy for those politicians to lump together the illegal evasion with the legal avoidance and say that both should be swept away. 

In fact, criminals generally launder money at home, because it's far riskier to move it across borders; tackling that problem should start at home. The stock in trade of the low tax jurisdictions is actually ordinary people who put their modest lifetime savings into a respected insurance company based in Jersey, or the Isle of Man, or Luxembourg, or Switzerland. Then their savings can grow without being constantly eroded by the tax authorities.

That is why politicians hate them. They know that if other places have lower taxes, people will move their money (or their businesses, or even themselves) abroad – so their citizens can no longer be taxed with impunity. It’s pure tax protectionism: governments don’t produce widgets, so they are all in favour of free trade in widgets; but they do produce taxes, so they want to keep out the competition.

Low taxes encourage enterprise, investment, growth and freedom. So low-tax jurisdictions don’t need to flout the rules, and it is insulting to suggest that they do: in fact, many have financial sectors that are better regulated than ours. Rather than try to bully them out of existence, the big countries should ditch their tax protectionism, square up to the competition, lower and simplify their own taxes.