Panama Papers

Panama Papers Are About Government Corruption, Not 'Tax Evasion'

Governments will seek to focus on general tax evasion charges to distract from evidence of corruption by public officials.


National Crime Agency

The "Panama Papers" are the largest leak in world history, revealing millions of documents related to the offshore accounts of politicians, former politicians, and billionaires around the world.

Despite much of the media's focus on tax evasion as the primary theme of the Panama Papers story, which embarrassed governments are happy to adopt as the primary theme as well, the question is one of official corruption.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) itself, which first published the data, says it reveals the holdings of "drug dealers, Mafia members, corrupt politicians and tax evaders–and wrongdoing galore."

Yet the numbers they offer tell a different story. According to ICIJ, 214,000 entities are described in the Panama Papers. They include the off-shore assets of 140 politicians and other public figures (including 12 current or former heads of state or government), as well as 33 people and companies that were "blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they'd been involved in wrongdoing, such as doing business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran." Yet The Economist counts 33 Forbes list billionaires to the 140 politicians in the Panama Papers.

The prime minister of Iceland, for example, resigned earlier today over revelations that he owned a shell company in the British Virgin Islands. Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson insists he's paid his taxes and done nothing wrong. Yet his shell company, according to CBS News, "held interests in failed Icelandic banks that his government was responsible for overseeing."

In general, this is why politicians have off-shore accounts, to hide wrong-doing, and not just to "evade taxes." Iceland has instituted capital controls, under Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson, so the prime minister appears to have run afoul of that. But the insinuation that anyone who decided to move their money oversees is "evading" an obligation is tired and backwards. A person's money belongs to them, not the government, just as their bodies and their freedoms do.

Donald Trump recently suggested intercepting the remittances of Mexicans living in the United States and sending money to their families in Mexico as a means to force Mexico to pay for a border wall. That's little more than a capital control. It's the sender's money, and up to them what they want to do with it.

While contemporary governments have carved out for themselves significant authority in demanding citizens of their countries do specific things with their money, it doesn't change the principle of self-ownership. Were private citizens to follow their money off-shore in the wake of this, would their governments demand to control their flight as well as their capital's? It's not just theoretical. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pushed the idea of seizing the passports of citizens who have too many interests overseas. Maybe he ought to support Donald Trump building a big wall after all—at least that'd be consistent and honest. Capital controls are restrictions of free movement much like walls are.