An OECD Proposal To Eliminate Tax Competition Would Mean Higher Taxes and Less Privacy

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An OECD Proposal To Eliminate Tax Competition Would Mean Higher Taxes and Less Privacy

September 18, 2000 21 min read Download Report
Daniel Mitchell
Former McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy
Daniel is a former McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy.

A spectre haunts the world's governments. They fear that the combination of economic liberalization with modern information technology poses a threat to their capacity to raise taxes.1

--The Financial Times, July 19, 2000

Globalization is making it harder for governments to overtax, because it is increasingly easy for taxpayers to shift their productive activities to lower tax environments. This is what is known as tax competition. Unfortunately, not everyone favors this development. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based international organization with 29 member nations from the industrialized world, has urged its member states to stop "harmful tax competition."2

In "Towards Global Tax Co-operation: Progress in Identifying and Eliminating Harmful Tax Practices," the OECD is calling on its members to eliminate low-tax policies that attract foreign investment.3 It is also trying to dictate tax policy in non-member nations by pressuring 41 low-tax nations and territories (called "tax havens" in the report) that have "harmful tax regimes"4 to sign an agreement to remove their low-tax policies and repeal their attractive financial privacy laws. If they do not, the report recommends that OECD members exercise financial protectionism against them.















Such an effort contradicts international norms and threatens the ability of sovereign countries to determine their own fiscal affairs.5 The OECD proposal, which is backed by officials in the primarily high-tax nations that form the core of its membership, would create a cartel by eliminating or substantially reducing the competition these high-tax nations face from low-tax regimes. The United States, a member of the OECD and its biggest source of funds, should put a stop to this ill-advised effort by unequivocally stating that it will not impose financial sanctions against the 41 blacklisted countries. (See Table 2.)

Critics have characterized this OECD effort as "an attempt by governments of high-tax countries to protect their tax revenues."6 Indeed, some opponents of tax competition have estimated that successful implementation of the proposed initiative could mean a tax increase that is "likely to be in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars worldwide."7 Needless to say, a return to the profligate fiscal policies like those of the 1960s and 1970s would threaten the economic advances that have occurred over the past 20 years.8

Some policymakers from high-tax OECD nations appear so desperate to hold tax revenues hostage that they ignore the interests of less-developed countries. As one Canadian tax expert points out, the OECD proposal targeting the so-called tax havens would pit "wealthy--and white" industrialized nations against "predominantly black, poor" countries.9 Indeed, some politicians are so greedy for tax revenue that the G-7 nations, the seven most powerful countries in the world, urged that taxes be enforced "with the same laws used against the laundering of drug proceeds."10













But such efforts miss the point. The fact that low-tax nations are magnets for jobs, capital, and entrepreneurial talent is a development that should be celebrated, not persecuted.11 Governments should not be sheltered from competition. Globalization is helping to create more prosperity by forcing businesses to be more productive. The same competitive forces should be allowed to impose fiscal discipline on government.

A cartel would have adverse consequences for U.S. taxpayers and threaten national sovereignty, financial privacy, technological development, and the rule of law. America should not participate in a regime that undermines one of its most significant competitive advantages--a low-tax environment compared with other industrialized nations. Instead, U.S. policymakers should make the economy even more competitive by reducing tax rates. Ultimately, lawmakers should enact a flat tax, a reform that would lure more economic activity to America's shores as well as substantially reduce incentives to either avoid or evade the tax system.

Whe Some Governments Want to Eliminate Tax Competition

The OECD's "Towards Global Tax Co-operation" report on efforts to eliminate low-tax competition and financial privacy is, at its core, a response to globalization. As one European bureaucrat explains, "differences in national tax systems are becoming increasingly evident and are therefore having an increasing influence on economic decisions concerning, for example, investment, savings, employment and consumption."12 And just as banks, pet stores, and car companies treat customers better when they know there is a competitor down the block, governments treat taxpayers better when they know economic activity can cross national borders.13

As the world economy becomes more integrated and technology improves, it is becoming much easier to avoid excessive taxation. As a senior International Monetary Fund (IMF) economist noted:

Today, individuals may be able to choose among many countries in deciding where to work, to shop, to invest their financial capital, to allocate the production activities of the enterprises they control and so on. In these decisions, they take into account the impact of taxes, especially as long as the tax systems of different countries diverge as much as they do today.14

This taxpayer mobility--the ability to "vote with one's feet"--means that countries with high tax rates are likely to lose revenue, making it harder for their policymakers to fund expensive government programs. Supporters of the OECD initiative tend to see the effort as an attempt by governments "to regain the capacity to finance redistribution through tax revenue."15 As Michel Vanden Abeele, the Director General of the European Commission's Taxation and Customs Union puts it, "protection of adequate tax revenues is of particular concern in order to guarantee the survival of the fair and caring society."16 Needless to say, lawmakers who support these programs prefer that tax competition did not exist.

The OECD's Disdain for Tax Competition

The fact that tax rates affect economic decisions is not an outcome that most policymakers welcome. In part, they fear the loss of revenue, which affects their ability to spend.1 Yet some of them think tax competition is economically counterproductive, as statements from various OECD publications show:

  • Low-tax policies "unfairly erode the tax bases of other countries and distort the location of capital and services."2

  • "[T]ax should not be the dominant factor in making capital allocation decisions."3

  • "These actions induce potential distortions in the patterns of trade and investment and reduce global welfare."4

  • Tax competition is "re-shaping the desired level and mix of taxes and public spending."5

  • Tax competition "may hamper the application of progressive tax rates and the achievement of redistributive goals."6

  • "Harmful tax practices may exist when regimes are tailored to erode the tax base of other countries. This can occur when tax regimes attract investment or savings originating elsewhere."7

1. Dow Jones Newswire, "Caribbean Leaders to Discuss Offshore Banking Blacklist," July 3, 2000.

2. OECD, "Towards Global Tax Co-operation," p. 5.

3. Ibid.

4. OECD, "Harmful Tax Competition: An Emerging Global Issue," p. 14.

5. Ibid., p. 16.

6. Ibid., p. 14.

7. OECD, "Harmful Tax Practices," April 13, 2000, at
























The only way to stop taxpayers from fleeing to lower tax environments, however, is to have all governments agree to maintain high tax rates--in effect, by establishing a tax cartel. The OECD proposal is just the latest development in an ongoing battle between taxpayers and their governments. Under the guise of "tax harmonization," for example, high-tax nations in the European Union have been working for years to impose a cartel on taxpayers.17

The creation of a tax cartel may be just the beginning of a process that results in higher taxes and a more costly government--policies that will adversely affect U.S. taxpayers. In order to understand why eliminating tax competition is bad public policy, it is important to understand what tax competition is and is not, and how it benefits people around the world.

What is Tax Competition, and Why is it Good?

Competition exists when rivals offer similar or better products at lower prices. In the business world, competition leads to innovation, lower prices, and good service. In effect, competitive markets mean the "customer is king." Competition serves the same role when the taxpayer is the consumer and governments must learn not to overtax lest they drive economic activity away.18

Government officials who fear tax competition are like the owner of a town's only gas station who suddenly has to deal with a bunch of competitors after years of being able to charge high prices while offering poor service. The residents of the town are like the world's taxpayers. The competition lowers the price of gas and auto repairs and makes their lives better.

This is the central reason why tax competition is a good thing. As a response by Switzerland in a 1998 OECD report noted, "competition in tax matters has positive effects. In particular, it discourages governments from adopting confiscatory regimes, which hamper entrepreneurial spirit and hurt the economy, and it avoids alignment of tax burdens at the highest level."19 Moreover, as one academic expert notes, "Competition will often have a `negative effect' on less competitive suppliers in a market, but the losses incurred by them, while real, are not `harm' in the proper sense."20 A British newspaper notes that tax competition is only damaging

in the absurdist sense that any government that finds itself in competition with a lower-tax regime can condemn its competitor as "harmful." Accept this and you introduce an irresistible upward bias in international taxation. Bad news for the tax havens, for sure, but scarcely better for the citizens of some of the tax hells that we hear rather less about.21

Perhaps most important, tax competition is not about governments. It is about people and whether they enjoy more freedom and have more opportunity.22 Tax competition tilts the balance of power away from government and towards taxpayers.23 Or, as The Wall Street Journal opined,

Tax competition between states is a good thing. The power of individuals and companies to vote with their feet is one of the most potent weapons against overweening government. Any attempt to deprive them of places to run must surely be considered an attack on freedom and a threat to prosperity.24

The Attraction of Lower Taxes
Ample evidence exists that economic activity is drawn to low-tax regimes.25 People work, save, invest, and take risks in order to improve their after-tax income. This insight is particularly relevant to international investment flows since, as an expert from the University of California in Riverside observes,

[A]rbitrage in capital markets causes rates of return to converge; but it is the net rates of return after taxes that tend to converge, not gross rates of return, so that businesses in jurisdictions with high taxes must offer and generate correspondingly higher gross rates of return on capital, to continue to attract investment.26

Consider the example of an investor looking at two potential business opportunities. In Country A, a project might generate a 10 percent return, while in Country B, a similar investment is expected to yield a 7 percent return. On paper, this would suggest the investor would take advantage of the opportunity in Country A. But what if Country A has a 50 percent tax and Country B has no tax? In that case, the investor will choose to invest in the project in Country B. This choice is made because the actual after-tax return in Country A falls to 5 percent, less than the 7 percent after-tax profit that could be earned in Country B.

This does not mean, of course, that all investment will flow to low-tax nations. It does mean that investors will steer away from projects in Country A unless the expected pre-tax return is sufficiently large to compensate for the tax burden. In non-economic terms, this means that where there are two equally attractive projects, investors will choose the project that is subject to lower tax rates.27

Taxation is not the only government policy that influences economic decisions. It may not even be the most important one. Excessive regulation, corruption, inflation, and protectionism also make an economy unattractive to entrepreneurs and investors.28 Other factors include property rights, flexible labor markets, and government spending.29 If the OECD project is any indication, however, government officials clearly think tax policy plays a dominant role in economic decisions.

The United States is a good example. Compared with Europeans, Americans enjoy low taxes, which seems to have a notable impact on economic performance. The United States has experienced faster economic growth, which has resulted in the creation of 30 million net new jobs since the mid-1970s compared with 3.5 million in all of Europe (almost all of which were government jobs).30

There is compelling anecdotal evidence that people do care about taxes when deciding where to live, work, save, and invest. For instance:

  • British sports millionaires like cricketer Ian Botham, Formula 1 driver Nigel Mansell, and golfer Ian Woosnam live in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, two of the so-called tax havens.31 Boris Becker and Luciano Pavarotti have taken up residence in Monaco.32

  • Fruit of the Loom moved its headquarters to the Cayman Islands, saving almost $100 million in taxes each year.33

  • U.S. insurance companies are moving some of their operations to Bermuda to avoid America's 35 percent corporate income tax.34

  • Many Scandinavians and Germans have bank accounts in Luxembourg.35

  • Many Latin American countries no longer tax dividends and interest to reduce the amount of capital going overseas.36

229. Dow Jones Newswire, "Caribbean Group to Fight Money Laundering, Challenge OECD," July 25, 2000.

230. Zagaris, "The Assault on Low Tax Jurisdictions," p. 27.

231. Ibid., p. 55.

232. Testimony of Robert Bauman to the House Banking Committee, 106th Cong., March 9, 2000.

233. FATF, "Review to Identify Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories."

234. Tom Naylor, at a United Nations Panel Discussion on June 10, 1998; see

235. Laura Murphy and Gregory Nojeim, Letter to US Congress, American Civil Liberties Union, July 13, 2000.

236. OECD, "Harmful Tax Competition: An Emerging Global Issue," p. 24.

237. William Hall, "Liechtenstein Bridles at Threat of Bank Blacklist," The Financial Times, June 21, 2000.

238. The MOSSFON Report, "Statement by the Bahamas Rejects Harmful Tax Practices."

239. Dow Jones Newswire, "St. Kitts Prime Minister Calls Measures Against Money Laundering a `Sinister Plot,'" July 17, 2000.

240. Associated Press, "Switzerland Remains Firm on Bank Secrecy Following EU Tax Plan," June 28, 2000.

241. Allen, "British Virgin Isles' Flagship Business, Under Scrutiny, Is Named `Tax Haven'."

242. U.S. Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, "FINCEN FAQs," at

243. United Nations, "Financial Havens, Banking Secrecy, and Money Laundering."

244. OECD, "Improving Access to Bank Information for Tax Purposes," 2000, p. 13.

245. Ibid., p. 25.

246. Bill Gilmore, "Money Laundering and International tax Cooperation: Exploring the Interface," European Financial Forum, London, June 2000.

247. United Nations, "Financial Havens, Banking Secrecy, and Money Laundering."

248. Edward Yingling, "ABA Statement on House Banking Committee Approval of Money Laundering Act," American Bankers Association, June 8, 2000.

249. Ron Paul, Tom Campbell, Bob Barr, and Walter Jones, "Report Together with Dissenting Views [To accompany H.R. 3886]," International Counter-Money Laundering and Foreign Anticorruption Act of 2000, House Banking Committee, Report No. 106-728, July 11, 2000.

250. Ibid.

251. Zagaris, "The Assault on Low Tax Jurisdictions," p. 12.

252. Testimony of Robert Bauman to the House Banking Committee, March 9, 2000.

253. Ibid.

254. Maureen Murphy, "Banking's Proposed `Know Your Customer' Rules," Congressional Research Service, March 23, 1999.

255. United Nations, Press Briefing on Money Laundering, June 5, 1998.

256. Raymond Baker, "Money Laundering and Flight Capital: The Impact on Private Banking," Testimony to The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, U.S. Senate, November 10, 1999.

257. Raymond Baker, "The Biggest Loophole in the Free-Market System," The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 1999.

258. United Nations, "Financial Havens, Banking Secrecy, and Money Laundering."

259. Peter Goldstein, "EU Tampere Summit to Mull Anti-Money Laundering Measures," Dow Jones Newswire, October 1, 1999.

260. Testimony of Raymond Baker before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, November 10, 1999.

261. Moulette, "Money Laundering: Staying Ahead of the Latest Trends," p. 29.

262. John Willman, "City Could End up Loser in Tax Haven Curbs," The Financial Times, July 25, 2000.

263. Anthony Travers, "Double Standards and the OECD Report," The Journal, Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, Summer 2000.

264. B. Persaud, "OECD Curbs on International Financial Centres: A Major Issue for Small States," Commonwealth Secretariat, London, August 10, 2000.

265. OECD, "Harmful Tax Practices."

266. OECD, "Hard Core Cartels," OECD in Washington, June 2000.

267. OECD, "Harmful Tax Competition: An Emerging Global Issue," p. 20.

268. Letter from Commonwealth Secretary-General HE Rt Hon Donald C McKinnon to OECD Secretary-General Donald Johnston, July 20, 2000.

269. Zagaris, "The Assault on Low Tax Jurisdictions," p. 46.

270. The Wall Street Journal, "Clinton Takes Aim at International Tax Havens," February 23, 2000.

271. Summers, "Tax Administration in a Global Era."

272. Dow Jones Newswire, "Six Offshore Locations Plan to End Tax-Haven Practices."

273. "`Considerable Optimism' Seen in World Economies, Summers Tells G-7 Ministers," BNA Daily Report for Executives, July 11, 2000.

274. Jonathan Talisman, "Remarks to the GWU/IRS Annual Institute on Current Issues in International Taxation," December 10, 1999, at

275. Villiger, "Switzerland: A Strong Player in the Global Financial Market Place."

276. Nick Herbert, "Great Britain and the Euro v. Sterling Debate," The Heritage Foundation, Heritage Lectures No. 682, August 16, 2000.

277. Michael Phillips, "U.S., Major Allies to Urge Bank Scrutiny of 15 Nations' Money Laundering Curbs," The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2000.

278. Rhinds, "Strauss-Kahn: Banks Should Boycott International Centers."

279. Larry Speer, "OECD Says France Should Push Forward With Ongoing Fiscal and Tax Reforms," BNA Daily Report for Executives, July 10, 2000.

280. David Pearson, "The Tax Man Cometh, And He Goeth Away," Dow Jones Newswire, August 25, 2000.

281. Friedrich Schneider and Dominik Enste, "Shadow Economies Around the World: Size, Causes, and Consequences," International Monetary Fund, IMF Working Paper No. WP/00/26, February 2000, p. 44.

282. Friedrich Schneider and Dominik Enste, "Increasing Shadow Economies All Over the World: Fiction or Reality," unpublished manuscript, 2000.

283. John Burton, "Going Underground," Stockholm Network Conference, December 1999.

284. Ibid.

285. Schneider and Enste, "Shadow Economies Around the World: Size, Causes, and Consequences," p. 39.

286. Daniel J. Mitchell, "Time for Lower Income Tax Rates: The Historical Case for Supply-Side Economics," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1253, February 19, 1999.

287. For further information on the flat tax, see Daniel J. Mitchell, "Jobs, Growth, Freedom, and Fairness: Why America Needs a Flat Tax, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1035, May 25, 1995.

288. Zagaris, "The Assault on Low Tax Jurisdictions," p. 55.

289. See OECD, "Towards Global Tax Co-operation," 2000, p. 25, and "Harmful Tax Competition: An Emerging Global Issue," 1998.


Daniel Mitchell

Former McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy