Institutionalized Snooping in Sweden

A very interesting article was posted at USA Today, How much do you make? It'd be no secret in Scandinavia.
Every year, Sweden publishes everyone's income tax returns. So do Finland and Norway. And nobody really cares.

Magnus Graner, state secretary for Sweden's Justice Ministry, says people's tax returns are available for viewing in a series of "tax calendars," or books, each year.

"If it's what you want to do, you can see what your brother-in-law made, your neighbor made," Graner says. "Not everybody does it, although we joke about it and say, 'Have you checked on your future in-laws?' No one in my family has done it — I don't think."

Sweden's policy of making tax returns public — as in Finland and Norway — stems from a tradition of open records and transparency in government, except in cases of national security and some aspects of criminal investigations.

"The right of public access to documents is laid down in the constitution," Graner says of Sweden's practice since the 18th century.

On the surface, this seems to be a severe invasion of privacy, and a perversion of an otherwise good idea, namely transparency in government. What is obviously missing in their formula is that while the government has the records, it is data about individuals that they are publicizing. It's certain that the overt socialism of that region makes such a policy not only possible but expected:

Making the data public demonstrates the Scandinavian tradition of jantelag, which translates roughly as nobody is better than anyone else, says Veera Heinonen, spokeswoman for the Finish Embassy in London.

"Finland is a very egalitarian country, and it's a very high-tax society, so it provides checks and balances," Heinonen says.

She says people's earnings can be a good source of gossip. Is anybody embarrassed? "Well, maybe some chief executives," she says. [bold added]

I truly can't penetrate how egalitarianism and high taxes constitute checks and balances. Is the check being provided the societal disincentive from making money? Is redistribution of wealth the "balance"? I don't understand. That's a tangential issue, though.

The article correctly points out that US law forbids such disclosures, as well as the outrage that would result if such a policy was implemented here.
By contrast, U.S. law prohibits releasing anybody's tax information. Imagine the howl if the IRS put tax returns online, so co-workers, neighbors and mothers-in-law could see what someone earns.
But what is the fundamental reason why we would reject such a policy here? Is there a principle at work in the desire for tax records privacy, or is it simply an embarrassed knee-jerk reaction?

There is a fundamental issue at work here, but it isn't being applied consistently or explicitly. As individuals, we do have a right to keep things private. Whether our government recognizes it or not, we have a right to our private property. All of it.

This means that we have a right to keep all of our income, to not have it taxed, and certainly to not be required under threat of guns and imprisonment to report said income to the government and surrender significant portions of it. If our government was proper--one of objective laws and not of men--this issue would not only be non-existent, it would be inconceivable.

But in our mixed economy, we have already conceded the basic principle--our right to property-- that would protect us from such governmental invasions. We already allow the seizure of our assets every April 15th, and insidious and destructive interventions into our lives every other day of the year. In terms of releasing income data specifically, SEC rules require that corporate executives and boards already publicly release all salary, bonus and stock profits.

In principle, it is just a small extra step for the IRS to publish all the information they already collect. The only thing stopping it is a half-remembered shred of dignity that America tenuously clings to.

With full protection of property rights, the "right to privacy" would be redundant, and likely would never even be considered; certainly not to the extent it is today, and if it was, courts and laws would treat it as an application of property rights.

Only in the face of intrusive government meddling and appropriation of our property do we start to be concerned with privacy rights. Until we realize that we have willfully given away the one core right that would protect us, our quibbling about which bit of personal information the government can make public and which it can't is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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