In other occasions I praised on these pages Icelandic bureaucracy as one that had made an impression on me — a positive impression, that is. Although my previous opinion is still valid in general, I have to point the finger at Icelandic Customs, whose work I feel is my right to criticize as a frequent user.
From the official site we read that the Directorate of Customs, whose administration falls within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance, was established in Iceland in 1929 and that “from the beginning, the main service functions have remained the same.” The same functions; and what about the mentality? We’re past year 2000: shouldn’t things be more up-to-date than they were in 1929?
I think it’s not unusual for people of most countries to see their local Customs as substantiation of Evil. It’s true that even in ages when markets heavily rely on unbridled circulation of goods, there still must be some kind of control exercised by authority to avoid aberrations and degeneration. But there are boundaries defining what should be regulated by authority and what shouldn’t be.
In the case of Customs, flexibility in judgment should be an absolute priority. Instead we — the consumers — are victims of blind bureaucratic nonsense that, on the long run, not only harms residents of a small country like Iceland, but doesn’t bring much benefit to the country itself on the whole either.
Let me explain with just a few examples of problems with Customs I encountered since I moved to Iceland.
- Family sending stuff from home – According to the official guidelines, household goods are not taxable. If you correctly mark your parcel thus, you won’t have to pay duties on items coming from your household. But as a matter of fact, it appears that Customs do tax at random items your family sends to you as “household goods”.
- Double standards – When we arrived to Iceland by boat, Customs refrained to tax goods we had stored in our car (colossal amounts of tea I bought when I still was in Italy and wanted to bring with me when I moved), stating basically that since those goods were for personal use only and not valuable enough, they didn’t need to be taxed — the employee was amused when I told him I believed I had to pay duties on my tea. Encouraged by this statement coming from Customs’ employees themselves, I later purchased online the same brand of tea, but in smaller quantity, and had it delivered to me in Iceland: I had to pay taxes on it that equaled the actual value of my purchase, even if it clearly was for personal and not for commercial use.
- Gifts – I am member of Bookmooch, a service that is aimed at promoting and facilitating books swap worldwide. If you’re a member, you can mooch books from other registered users for free; in exchange you have to send your own books at your own expenses. It’s very fair and it helps creating cultural bonds among people from different countries; it also helps in keeping awareness awake regarding authors and books that may be unknown, out of print, not yet translated, or not available anymore to some parts of the world. Bookmooch is a nonprofit service which should be regarded as a commendable means to promote cultural exchanges, and should particularly be respected in countries where culture is considered integral part of everyday’s life, like in Iceland. I was sent books from Bookmooch members, books with no actual worth on the market, usually second-hand and very battered copies that could only have value for their intellectual content; Icelandic Customs had the guts to process and tax them in any case. Even though they were marked as gifts and senders provided evidence I had not purchased them, they ended processing them like goods bought from stores. Whatever the logic behind it, you have to pay duties on presents, even if they are something you’re not aware of and you haven’t the slightest idea about their actual value.
Bureaucracy in Iceland is very efficient, and I will never tire to repeat it, unless I’m proved wrong, but in the case of Customs there is something very wrong going on at average people’s expenses that will end damaging the whole economy in a way or in another sooner or later. At the moment, the most noticeable effect is people are discouraged from buying goods from abroad, even if it’s something they cannot find in their country under any circumstance. If this is “free market” then I want to know what the term “free” actually means.
The case of bookmooch I found particularly shocking and absurd and I honestly think when a country reaches the point where it needs to tax a book given as a present, it means something in the system is completely defective. Statistics say Iceland is one of the countries with higher literacy rates and copies of books sold per capita in the world and yet blind bureaucrats are unable to distinguish between processing a used book with pages falling apart and a luxury brand new item. I think this case is particularly shameful and should bring the attention of whoever is in charge; there definitely is a pressing need for a change.