Paying for info on tax dodgers is immoral

Buying stolen Swiss information on rich tax dodgers is wrong and puts Germany on shaky moral ground, argues Kai Biermann from Zeit Online.

Paying for info on tax dodgers is immoral
Photo: DPA

Should the state pay for illegally obtained data if it can be used to claw back hefty sum of tax money? It might be the pragmatic thing to do, but that doesn’t make it the moral path to take.

Anyone who engages in tax evasion harms society. The state must not tolerate such behaviour, which is why German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is planning to buy stolen information on tax dodgers who have hidden their money illegally in Switzerland.

Society must protect itself against harm. That is indisputable. Otherwise its very existence would be in doubt. This is, for instance, why we have the police.

But how far does this need for protection go?

Denunciation of criminal acts – universally defined and declared – is a traditional role for authorities, along with knowing when the law is being violated and, equally, promoting people’s willingness to report crimes by offering incentives. Rewards are regularly offered for “helpful information” to help solve crimes.

Germany’s railway operator, for example, pays people up to €600 for reporting vandals caught spraying graffiti. Thus they try to avert harm from that otherwise would affect everybody.

In times past, it was called a bounty put on someone’s head to encourage others to deliver the offender to justice. Dead or alive, as the saying went back then.

Things are different today, yet such a reward from Deutsche Bahn for a vandal, or from the German state for a tax dodger, still exposes the same problem as it did back in the Wild West: It tries to enforce justice in a region where the sheriff or finance minister otherwise cannot. It is a stop-gap measure and therefore an indication of a deeper flaw.

Given Switzerland bucks and stonewalls as much as it can whenever the subject turns to the money in its banks, German authorities are left with the difficult task of pursuing tax dodgers.

Tough luck, one might say. But it’s not enough to say Switzerland regards itself as a democratic country just like Germany. That would fail to appreciate the fact that the country resists the widespread notion that paying taxes is an unavoidable civic duty. It must therefore be the German government’s goal to persuade Switzerland to co-operate – this is happening and already showing results.

To then buy incriminating information regardless, because the profit ratio is so attractive to the taxman (paying €2.5 million in bounty to get €100 million in taxes back), appears to be nothing more than a bounty. It also creates the appearance that a recent agreement on preventing tax evasion, reached with the help of the OECD, isn’t working.

But most important is the unsettling fact that the relevant evidence in this case was stolen and is supposed to be rewarded with a considerable sum of money.

Is the German government now going to establish a pension fund for Swiss bankers? When the bankers are fed up with managing the money of criminals they can simply sell their customers’ information to the relevant authorities. It would have been more ethical had these bankers openly refused to deal with illegal money in years past. But they failed to do this and they are now being rewarded to boot.

According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, pragmatic acts have nothing to do with morality. Indeed they are the opposite. Every action should also function as a universal principle.

We would reward an honest person for finding and handing in a wallet. But a thief who remorsefully returns a wallet at best has his sentence reduced. The witness – if he is lucky – goes away as he came, no richer than he was before.

Certainly, the tax authorities should accept the data gratefully and use it if they get their hands on it. Yet even that is not completely above board. German law has no problem with such “fruits of the forbidden tree” as the justice system in the United States does. In that country, illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in court. Not so here.

At least the German government didn’t steal the information itself or obtained via torture or blackmail.

But that still doesn’t mean the tax authorities should make the bearer of this immoral package rich either.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Zeit Online, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


German man jailed for killing petrol station worker in mask row

A 50-year-old German man was jailed for life Tuesday for shooting dead a petrol station cashier because he was angry about being told to wear a mask while buying beer.

German man jailed for killing petrol station worker in mask row

The September 2021 murder in the western town of Idar-Oberstein shocked Germany, which saw a vocal anti-mask and anti-vaccine movement emerge in response to the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

The row started when 20-year-old student worker Alex W. asked the man to put on a mask inside the shop, as required in all German stores at the time.

After a brief argument, the man left.

The perpetrator – identified only as Mario N. – returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he bought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off his mask and another argument ensued.

He then pulled out a revolver and shot the cashier in the head point-blank.

On Tuesday, the district court in Bad-Kreuznach convicted Mario N. of murder and unlawful possession of a firearm, and handed him a life sentence.

READ ALSO: Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in Covid mask row

Under German law, people given a life sentence can usually seek parole after 15 years. His defence team had sought a sentence of manslaughter, rather than murder.

At the start of the trial, prosecutor Nicole Frohn told how Mario N. had felt increasingly angry about the measures imposed to curb the pandemic, seeing them as an infringement on his rights.

“Since he knew he couldn’t reach the politicians responsible, he decided to kill him (Alex W.),” she said.

Mario N. turned himself in to police the day after the shooting.

German has relaxed most of its coronavirus rules, although masks are still required in some settings, such as public transport.