Bioethics Blogs

The Panama Papers: How much financial privacy should the super rich be allowed to enjoy?

The Panama Papers comprise a leak of 11.5 million files from Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm. The leak has tainted the reputations of many celebrities, and some public officials have been forced to resign, including Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsoon, and Spanish Industry Minister José Manuel Soria.

Ramón Fonseca, Director of Mossack Fonseca, complained that his firm was the victim of “an international campaign against privacy.” At a time where privacy does seem to be under attack on all fronts, it is relevant to ask whether the super rich ought to be able to enjoy financial privacy with respect to their offshore accounts.

Most people in Western societies value both privacy and transparency. Privacy allows us to guard what is none of other people’s business. By shielding us from other people’s gazes and judgments, it enables freedom of thought and action, creativity, relaxation, and intimacy, among other benefits. In turn, transparency is one of the marks of advanced democratic societies, as it fosters fairness and accountability.

Privacy and transparency, however, can conflict, as in this case, and there can be such a thing as too much of both. A world with too much privacy would be one where people would be isolated, not sharing any information about themselves with others, and where criminals would never be found out. A world with too much transparency would be a stressful, shallow, and conformist one—with every act being publicly scrutinized, people would be afraid to think or act in ways that are not mainstream, stigmas and past mistakes would stick to people for the rest of their lives, and being a political or social dissenter would be extremely costly or impossible.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.