In the past, your salary was published in a book. A list of everyone’s income, assets and the tax they had paid, could be found on a shelf in the public library. These days, the information is online at many of the global payroll providers website, just a few keystrokes away.
The change happened in 2001, and it had an instant impact. At one time you would automatically be told what your Facebook friends had earned simply by logging on.
Transparency is the key in Norway, partly because Norwegians pay high levels of income tax – an average of 40.2% compared to 33.3% in the UK, according to Eurostat, while the EU average is just 30.1%. The Norwegian government believes that when you are expected to pay such high tax you should have the privilege of being able to see that everyone is paying the same tax as you and that the money is being spent wisely. This fosters a deep trust with the Norwegian people in both the tax system and the social security system.
This is considered to far outweigh any problems that may be caused by envy.
In fact, in most workplaces, people have a fairly good idea how much their colleagues are earning, without having to look it up.
Wages in many sectors are set through collective agreements, and pay gaps are relatively narrow.
The gender pay gap is also narrow, by international standards. The World Economic Forum ranks Norway third out of 144 countries in terms of wage equality for similar work.
So the figures that flashed up on Facebook may not have taken many people by surprise. But at a certain point some Norwegians lobbied the government to introduce measures that would encourage people to think twice before snooping on the salary details of a friend, neighbor or colleague.
People now have to log in using their national ID number in order to access the data on the tax authority’s website, and for the last few years it has been impossible to search anonymously, since 2014 it has been possible to find out who has been doing searches on your information. After this was implemented there was drop of about 90% in searches.
There are more than three million taxpayers in Norway, out of a total population of 5.36 million. The tax authority logged 16.5 million searches in the year before restrictions were put into place. Today there are around two million searches per year.
In a recent survey 92% of people said they did not look up friends, family or acquaintances.
Although in concept this transparency seems like a great way to be able to check up that your fellow citizens are abiding by the same rules as you, there are still loop holes. The tax lists only tell you people’s net income, net assets and tax paid. Someone with a vast property portfolio, for instance, would probably be worth far more than the figure found in the lists, because the taxable property value is often far less than the current market value.
Many approve of Norway’s transparency in this are but they note that it can have negative effects, in schools for instance.
There have been stories about children from low-income families who have been bullied in school, by classmates who looked up their parents’ financial situation. Or children who come from higher income families
The general consensus is that the government currently has the balance about right.
The fact that anonymous searches are no longer permitted discourages criminals from searching for wealthy people to target.
And yet, the restrictions introduced in 2014 have not stopped whistle-blowers reporting things they find suspicious.
Maybe the Peeping Tom part has more or less vanished, but you still have the legitimate reasons for searching and also some good effects of that openness.