LONDON, June 22, 2008 -- Every year, Sweden publishes everyone's income tax returns. So do Finland and Norway. And nobody really cares.
By contrast, U.S. law prohibits releasing anybody's tax information. Imagine the howl if the IRS put tax returns online, so co-workers, neighbors and mothers-in-law could see what someone earns.
That happened in Italy earlier this year, when the outgoing government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi briefly posted taxpayers' incomes on the Internet, and newspapers picked up the list.
Magnus Graner, state secretary for Sweden's Justice Ministry, says people's tax returns are available for viewing in a series of "tax calendars," or books, each year.
"If it's what you want to do, you can see what your brother-in-law made, your neighbor made," Graner says. "Not everybody does it, although we joke about it and say, 'Have you checked on your future in-laws?' No one in my family has done it — I don't think."
Two weeks ago, Sweden published the tax returns of ordinary wage-earners. In November or December, Swedes can see how much high-rollers made — with their income from dividends and other investments — plus how much they paid in taxes for 2007.
That's when Sweden's newspapers traditionally publish the financial wealth of CEOs, celebrities and other rich people. "There's no complaint with it," Graner says.
Sweden's policy of making tax returns public — as in Finland and Norway — stems from a tradition of open records and transparency in government, except in cases of national security and some aspects of criminal investigations.
"The right of public access to documents is laid down in the constitution," Graner says of Sweden's practice since the 18th century.
Making the data public demonstrates the Scandinavian tradition of jantelag, which translates roughly as nobody is better than anyone else, says Veera Heinonen, spokeswoman for the Finnish Embassy in London.
"Finland is a very egalitarian country, and it's a very high-tax society, so it provides checks and balances," Heinonen says.
She says people's earnings can be a good source of gossip. Is anybody embarrassed? "Well, maybe some chief executives," she says.
Ida Ragnarsson, 22, of Helsingborg, Sweden, says she doesn't mind if anyone sees what she earns. Ragnarsson, who coaches sales people, says she has checked up on her family. "It's fun to know how much they earn," she says.
Italians didn't think so in April when Vincenzo Visco, a deputy economy minister who spearheaded Italy's fight against tax evasion, posted 2005 tax returns on the agency's website.
The gesture, Visco told Italian news organizations, was to encourage greater "transparency and democracy."
The information was quickly removed from the website, but it was available long enough for newspapers to grab and publish figures about the rich.
Among the incomes posted: Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative media mogul who replaced Prodi as prime minister. His 2005 earnings: $43.5 million, on which he paid $18.6 million in taxes.
Philip Lindquist, 19, a student in Stockholm, says he doesn't understand the fuss in Italy. "The model on which Sweden is built demands this" public information, he says.
Norway had parliamentary hearings several years ago on whether to continue making the information public, but nothing came of it, says Marietta Christophersen in Norway's embassy in London.
It's very popular, she says. Norwegians can go on newspaper websites, she says, and "search for celebrities' tax details or those of your neighbor or in-laws."
Americans would likely be outraged, says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
That won't happen, says Internal Revenue Service spokesman Rob Marvin. "Federal law prohibits the release of that private information."
Contributing: Christoffer Braw in Stockholm