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Markus Stocker

Between information technology and environmental science with a flair for economics, the clarinet, and the world of soups and salads.

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The German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has spoken: “Switzerland’s bank secrecy law has no place in the 21st century.” For starters, what in Switzerland in German is called Bankkundengeheimnis – bank client confidentiality – is the safeguard of financial privacy, not the secrecy of the bank, as I argued almost a year ago.

I’m sure Mr. Schäuble is a reasonable man and I respect his opinion. Cross-border tax cheats as well as banks that resort to illegal practices are a problem that likely contributes to the financial destabilization of countries [1] and is probably pronounced in our ever more global world and in times of recession. However, I’m not sure if stating that “we will disestablish the bank secrecy in Europe” (Wolfgang Schäuble, interview with NZZ) is the most sensible approach.

What Mr. Schäuble does not appreciate is the core idea of the Swiss bank client confidentiality, namely, the freedom of financial privacy. Disestablishing the “bank secrecy” equals to giving up individual freedom and move power into the hands of a few, the likes of Mr. Schäuble or government at large, a dynamic that is inherently problematic. Homo sapiens with power has yet to evolve into knowing and wise.

Freedom never comes for free. With respect to bank client confidentiality, Swiss law sets decisional power into the hands of each individual. You, as holder of a Swiss bank account, are free and responsible to do the right thing, a privilege that comes with a price tag, i.e. to file a tax return faithfully knowing you could do differently. In the interview with NZZ, Mr. Schäuble argues that “he wants to assure the people of Germany that nobody can withdraw from tax liability.” I quote,

Er [Herr Schäuble] wolle vor allem den Menschen in Deutschland das Gefühl geben, dass sich niemand seiner Steuerpflicht entziehen könne. (NZZ)

Do we really trust an anonymous, transient, non-transparent, government made of people more than our neighbor or, for that matter, a random person, that it will not abuse of power? To me, Mr. Schäuble’s parental-like authority sounds more like the irate voice of a teacher who feels the urge to castigate students because (s)he has lost the attention of a few. My voice goes more along Pink Floyd’s lines “We don’t need no education//We don’t need no thought control,” Mr. Schäuble.

On the contrary, I wonder what speaks against introducing bank client confidentiality everywhere.

[1] Werner Vontobel und Viktor Parma. Schurkenstaat Schweiz?: Wie sich der größte Bankenstaat der Welt korrumpiert und andere Länder destabilisiert. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, Januar 2009, ISBN: 978-3-570-01083-9