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The paradox

  • Author : Martyn Gowar
  • Date : April 2011
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Martyn Gowar TEP is a Partner at McDermott Will & Emery

Twenty years ago Yugoslavia was one country, but a country not at ease with itself. Now, it is split into a number of independent states including Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia. The only things that they could agree on were that, first, they wanted to have nothing to do with each other, but secondly, they all wanted to be part of the European Union.

I have been concerned that the tax system of individual countries does not cater for the international wealthy because all the concepts of domicile, citizenship and habitual residence were the product of pragmatic social decisions based on 19th-century economic realities, and take no account of the way in which the world has shrunk over the last 60 years. Of course, the number of people who are affected is very small, but in terms of being the tax-payers of the world they do make a very considerable difference.

And it is not just on individual taxes that the problem arises. Many corporates also think globally and they work in and with jurisdictions that are like chalk and cheese. We must remember that tax systems are there to collect taxes, and taxes are collected because the individual nation has financial needs that have to be paid for.

Another fact that is so important is that emerging economies do not have similar attitudes to wealth or indeed to democracy. In short, all countries do not operate on a level playing field in terms of needs, culture or aspirations.

All countries do not operate on a level playing field in terms of needs, culture or aspirations

Yet, individual families and individual mobile tax-payers sometimes find different attitudes refreshing and enabling. The trend has been, as it seems to me, that we have moved from families to tribes to cities to nation states – and now we move to organisations like the Federal United States of America and the European Union. All look at a bigger model to protect their trade and their security. And yet the paradox is that the bigger the unit, the more the individual wishes to feel a part of a smaller unit where he or she can make a difference and feel valued.

In building a revised tax system that will be fit for the 21st century, as I strongly believe that nations are going to have to do, I hope that the smug assumption of the OECD that countries have a right to intrude ever more extensively into the affairs of their individuals will be questioned, and that the discussions that are beginning to take place in terms of talking about territorial forms of corporate taxation might be looked at as offering a model for individual taxation. For the realities behind them are the same, in that a corporation as well as an individual is a unit that has rights as well as responsibilities in respect of tax.

The paradox remains – how can you match the financial requirements of individual countries with a more global taxpayer base for whom the rules of fiscal obligation to a particular state are often increasingly arbitrary and artificial?


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