Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hillary Clinton's Misguided (and Dangerous) Advice for Latin America

In an amusing coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and I were both in Latin America this week offering fiscal policy advice. But it won't surprise you to know that Mrs. Clinton's suggestions are radically different than the advice I provided. She spoke in Ecuador and, according to an AFP report, said it was time for "the wealthy across the Americas to pay their 'fair share' of taxes in order to eliminate poverty and promote economic opportunity for all." She also claimed that "her appeal to overhaul tax systems did not amount to 'class warfare' and was instead a recognition that the 'winner-take-all-approach' was a drag on progress." The AFP story concludes with Mrs. Clinton asserting, "We can't mince words about this. Levels of tax evasion are unacceptably high,"

By contrast, in my remarks to the Fundacion Libertad in Panama and the Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador, I explained that academic research shows that better tax compliance is best achieved by lowering tax rates and eliminating inefficient and corrupt spending programs so that taxpayers have more confidence that their money is not being wasted. But let's touch on something even more important than economics. I also made a moral argument about the danger of giving national tax authorities too much power and information - especially in a region where governments oftentimes are the source of oppression, expropriation, and tyranny. Simply stated, there are some things that are more important than obeying tax laws. This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video explains that so-called tax havens are an extremely important refuge for people who are subject to persecution and other forms of government malfeasance.

Let's consider some Latin American examples. Imagine a political dissident in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has turned that country into a thugocracy and opponents of his sinister regime are vulnerable to having their assets expropriated (and worse). Thankfully, many Venezuelans are able to protect themselves from socialist tyranny by putting their money in Cayman, Panama, or Miami (the U.S. is a tax haven for non-U.S. people). But if Mrs. Clinton got to make the rules, tax havens would no longer exist and Chavez would be empowered.

Or what about families in Mexico, who rightfully are afraid that if they keep their money in the country and report it on their tax returns, corrupt bureaucrats in the national tax office will sell their names to criminal gangs and suddenly their children will be kidnapped and they will have to deal with the horror of getting a ransom note accompanied by a child's finger. Fortunately, many Mexicans can guard against this horrific possibility by placing their assets in Cayman, Panama, or Miami. But in Mrs. Clinton's ideal world, those options would not exist and many more people would experience the nightmare of vicious crime.

And consider the plight of Argentinians. A few years ago, the nation's venal government stole the private pension assets of the people. This is in addition to radical currency devaluations that have wiped out a big chunk of people's savings. Prudent Argentinians have avoided these forms of back-door thievery by moving funds to Cayman, Panama, and Miami. In the Orwellian world envisioned by Mrs. Clinton, however, tax havens wouldn't exist and governments would have carte blanche to engage in bad policy.

This is not the first indication of Mrs. Clinton's government-├╝ber-alles mindset as Secretary of State. Let's remember that she urged class-warfare tax policy for Pakistan and more recently said Brazil was a role model for soak-the-rich tax policy (a strange assertion since the top tax rate there is only 27.5 percent). If nothing else, at least we can give her credit for being consistent.

But if I have to choose between Mrs. Clinton's consistent statism and protecting the liberty and freedom of oppressed and persecuted people, it's no contest. Politicians and senior government appointees all over the world act as if folks in the private sector are nothing more than serfs and peasants who have an obligation to pay ever-higher tax burdens, so we should be happy that so-called tax havens offer a refuge - even if we don't live in failed states such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina. Actually, since Obama is trying to turn us into Greece, maybe this issue will be important for Americans even sooner than we think.

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