August 21, 2001 | Commentary on International Organizations

A One-World Taxing Authority?

A key United Nations panel has proposed a radical plan to give international bureaucrats sweeping powers over U.S. tax policy. This scheme, which will be part of the agenda at the International Conference on Financing for Development next March, would undermine America's competitive advantage in the world economy. The president and Congress should reject this extremist agenda.

The report from the "High-level Panel on Financing for Development" contains four major initiatives. Each one of these proposals is bad tax policy. All the proposals undermine national sovereignty, and most of them represent an assault on the right to privacy.

(1) An International Tax Organization: The U.N. report asserts that an International Tax Organization is needed, particularly to "take a lead role in restraining tax competition." This is an attack on the world's taxpayers. Governments should not conspire how to keep taxes high, and they certainly should not set up a supranational institution to pursue this big-government agenda. The proposal also is a threat to America's national interests. By world standards, the U.S. is a low-tax country, and it is clear that an International Tax Organization would undermine our ability to use this advantage to create jobs and growth.

(2) Imposition of global taxes: It is bad news when politicians in Washington make us pay taxes, but just imagine how high taxes would climb if unaccountable international bureaucracies had that power. Yet this is a big part of the U.N.'s agenda. Specifically, the report highlights two options.

The first is a tax on all international currency transactions, a proposal that would throw a monkey wrench in the world trading system and impose a disproportionate burden on America's efficient financial markets. The second option is an energy tax. This idea would mean higher gas prices, higher electricity prices, and higher heating oil prices. And if this agenda is not sufficiently frightening, the report also talks about global taxes on seabed mining, ocean fishing, and satellite launches.

(3) Allowing governments to permanently tax emigrants: This is probably the most anti-American of all the proposals. Because of our free market economy, we have lots of job creation and economic opportunity, and this makes the U.S. a magnet for the world's entrepreneurs and other ambitious people. From the perspective of other nations, however, this creates a "brain drain," one that deprives them of people to tax. To fix this supposed problem, the U.N. wants to give governments the power to tax the income of emigrants. In other words, if a French businessman became a U.S. resident, France would have the right to tax his income for the rest of his life. This scheme could have a profound impact on the American economy since foreign-born U.S. residents earn about $600 billion of income every year.

(4) Worldwide taxation: Not only does the U.N. want to impose taxes on a global basis, it also want to help individual governments tax income on a global basis. This is why the report endorses "information exchange," which means governments would be expected to collect private financial data on individual taxpayers and then share that information with other governments.

Politicians from high-tax nations like France get upset when taxpayers shift their economic activity to jurisdictions with lower tax burdens. Information exchange would reduce this freedom by allowing France to impose French tax rates on income earned in other nations.

While this proposal will probably get the least attention of the report's four major recommendations, it could be the most dangerous. Information exchange is a back-door form of tax harmonization since individuals would be taxed at the same rate regardless of where they earn their income. This initiative is a dagger aimed at the heart of U.S. financial markets since people from all around the world invest in the U.S. economy, but many would withdraw their funds if financial institutions were forced to act as informers for foreign tax collectors.

In addition to the specific proposals discussed above, the report calls for a doubling of foreign aid, more social welfare spending, higher taxes, and international bureaucracies that would interfere with the ability of sovereign nations to determine their own labor and environmental policies.

Combined with the U.N.'s recent pro-gun control meeting, it seems the organization is still wedded to an anti-American, anti-freedom agenda.

In the final analysis, motives do not matter. Regardless of whether the U.N.'s behavior is driven by knee-jerk anti-Americanism or by hard-core socialist ideology, the organization's tax agenda would cripple the U.S. economy.

The good news is that Congress and the President can tell the bureaucrats at the U.N. to take a long walk off a short pier. The bad news is that the administration has been disturbingly receptive to "information exchange" initiatives being advanced by Europe's welfare states. The final decision on these proposals, including those in the U.N. report, will determine whether the White House is on the side of American taxpayers or foreign tax collectors.

Daniel Mitchell is the McKenna senior fellow in political economy at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Daniel J. Mitchell, Ph.D. McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy

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