Norwegian tax authorities released their annual tax list this week, outlining the income and total wealth of nearly every taxpayer in the country. According to the Associated Press, the data has been released annually for many years. In 2004, a conservative government briefly banned the practice, but liberal leaders revived it in 2007. This despite the apparent antipathy of many Norwegians: in a 2007 survey, 46 percent opposed the disclosures.
The AP story on this phenomenon is snarky and perhaps a little myopic. It repeatedly explains the disclosure practice by invoking Norway's supposedly distinctive penchant for equality, transparency, and democracy. Disclosures would be "unthinkable elsewhere," the reporter suggests. "To non-Scandinavians, it would seem to be a gross violation of privacy."
To bolster the case for cultural determinism, the article even quotes a professor of Scandinavian Studies:
Christine Ingebritsen, a professor at the University of Washington, said the Norwegian tax list exemplifies a time-tested, distinctly Scandinavian custom of egalitarianism.
''This is how you make sure that you're being legitimate in the eyes of the community -- you show that the wealth of a CEO isn't off the charts,'' she said, adding that unlike the U.S., Norway ''places the wealth and health of all as a priority above the individual success stories.''
Well, maybe. But that statement (like many others in the article) elides the fact that tax disclosure has not always been a Scandinavian monopoly. In fact, it was once the law of the land in the good ol' USA. If Scandinavians are today embarrassed by the disclosures (''It reflects very poorly on our culture and on our society,'' complained Georg Apnes, director of Norway's Data Inspectorate and a member of the Conservative Party), they can take comfort in American precedent.
U.S. income tax returns were public record during the Civil War, when federal officials insisted that publicity was necessary to ensure compliance. Tax information was again made public in the 1920s, this time for more political and ideological reasons. Disclosure in the flapper era was defended less for its effect on compliance than for its apparent fairness. Supporters of the practice insisted that people had a right to know what others were paying. We all have a vested stake in the tax payments of our compatriots. Or so the argument went.
The voyeuristic thrill was undeniable: Americans of the flapper age (like today's Norwegians) scoured the tax lists published in newspapers around the country. But also like the Norwegians, they were a bit uneasy with the practice. Congress soon rethought its zeal for transparency and repealed publicity provisions.
Still, the brief American flirtation with tax transparency suggests that Norwegians may not have a lock on egalitarian virtue.