The Pandora Papers and the Problem of Tax Havens

Earlier this month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) dropped a bombshell: 11.9 million confidential documents revealing tens of trillions of dollars in shady financial dealings by over 400 individuals, including 35 world leaders and some of the globe’s wealthiest people. The so-called Pandora Papers, one of the largest document leaks in history, were met by a few loud voices of outrage from the Left, but otherwise, among most American media, with a collective yawn.

To be sure, the Pandora Papers documented comparatively few cases of unambiguously criminal behavior: lawless oligarchs engaged in nefarious schemes of exploitation, and seeking to cover their tracks by stashing money offshore, far from the prying eyes of national or international law enforcement agencies. For the most part, rather, they shed light on increasingly commonplace financial behavior that is perhaps technically legal, even if morally questionable: very wealthy individuals using international tax havens to avoid onerous domestic regulations and taxes.

Many conservatives might be inclined to shrug their shoulders, or even inwardly cheer, celebrating anyone able to stick it to the oppressive tax-man. But Christians should stop to ponder: how should we really think about taxes, and tax havens?

For Christians, it is clear from the New Testament that tax-paying is a moral obligation. Most of us are familiar with Romans 13:1-7 as a defense of civil authority, but may forget how much emphasis it pays on taxpaying: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed…” (Rom. 13:6-7). Jesus similarly encouraged his followers to pay up, although taxes in Roman Judaea were notoriously oppressive (Mt. 17:24-27; 22:15-22).

At the same time, however, we might reasonably ask whether this means we can’t take steps to reduce our tax burden. After all, Paul teaches slaves to submit to their masters, but also says, “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” Might it not be the same with taxes: “Pay your taxes if you can’t avoid it, but if you can, avail yourself of the opportunity”? Perhaps so—certainly there is nothing wrong with using the IRS’s own recognized tax deductions to wisely reduce your tax exposure. But just as Paul did not approve Onesimus running away from Philemon, he would probably have drawn the line at illegal evasions of taxation—even oppressive taxation.

Offshore tax havens pose a difficult case, since often those who use them to avoid domestic taxes are able to operate within the letter of their own countries’ laws, while defeating the spirit or intention of those laws. To judge such actions, we need to think about them within a larger context.

First, we should ask questions of justice or fairness. One problem with offshoring is that generally, only those who are already quite wealthy can afford the sophisticated legal and accounting instruments—there are no “Mom n’ Pop Banks” in the Cayman Islands. Thus, offshoring offers a way for those who are already financially advantaged to entrench those advantages at the expense of others who are less fortunate. Why at their expense? Well, consider: every country has to pay its bills somehow, and for every citizen who evades the tax-man, the remaining citizens will have to pay that much more. Although parking your money offshore might seem like a reasonable individual decision, on a societal level, offshoring creates perverse incentives that tend to intensify inequality and punish already-struggling poor and middle-class Americans.

Second, we should ask questions of prudence. If we concede that in many Western countries, taxes are oppressively higher, still this does not mean that we should celebrate the proliferation of offshore tax havens. As conservative proponents of the rule of law and national sovereignty, we should be no more happy about “representation without taxation” than our forebears were about “taxation without representation.” By God’s grace, we live in regimes where those who are taxed can work to change the laws they live under. But only those who truly live under the authority of unpleasant laws have a strong incentive to change them. If those citizens with the most wealth and political clout conceal their money abroad, they will have increasingly little motivation to fight for reform of their own countries’ tax codes. The best way to reform unwelcome laws is from within, not by creating—or turning a blind eye to—little islands of refuge exempt from those laws.

Conservatives and liberals may not agree on much when it comes to taxes. Still, on this, at least they should be able to agree: US taxation should be determined by US law, not by wily bankers in the Virgin Islands, and all those who enjoy the privileges of citizenship should bear its burdens as well.


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