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.