Swiss: yes to secret accounts

IN voting nearly 3 to 1 to turn down a proposal to dilute the nation's tough bank secrecy law, Swiss voters have once again reminded the world that Switzerland remains a basically conservative society that mirrors a natural setting of mountains and forests suggesting permanence.

Swiss voters were surely not telling the world that they favor tainted money - the type often believed to be laundered through secret bank accounts. By some reckonings, including those of many Social Democrats who led the fight to water down the bank secrecy law, as much as $44 billion in illegal funds may be deposited in Swiss accounts.

More likely, Swiss voters were agreeing with the view of the conservative majority in parliament, who argued that to dilute the law would work against the Swiss economy and increase unemployment. Swiss unemployment, at 1.2 percent, is the lowest among the Western industrial nations.

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The Swiss have already taken some steps to make the secrecy law somewhat more responsive to legitimate investigative needs from abroad. Swiss authorities, for example, often cooperate with overseas governments on a limited case-by-case basis where criminal charges or tax violations or securities manipulations are at issue. The proposal voted down by Swiss voters, however, would have gone much further - and forced banks to open up their records.

There is a strong argument to be made for something like the overall Swiss bank secrecy law in a world where computers are increasingly used by governments and organizations to keep track of the day-to-day doings of private individuals. The Swiss bank secrecy law, after all, grew out of the Nazi era, when many German-Jewish families sought to protect their assets in hidden Swiss accounts. In that sense, the world may well gain by having at least one nation in the world where such privacy is still respected.

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