Many articles have been written about tax evasion. Most of them have appeared in the accounting, economics and public finance literature. The usual thrust of these articles is to discuss technical aspects of tax evasion. Practitioner journals address legal aspects and evasion techniques (Oliva, 1998). Scholarly journals focus on lost tax revenues or reasons why collections are not more efficient. Ethics is seldom discussed, or when it is discussed, it is usually done superficially. Oftentimes the discussion begins with the premise that what is illegal is also unethical.
The present paper is different. This paper begins with an overview of the ethical literature that has been published on tax evasion and proceeds to present the results of an empirical study that solicited views on the ethics of tax evasion from participants in six countries. This study had several goals. One goal was to rank the main arguments that have been used to justify tax evasion on ethical grounds over the last 500 years. Another goal was to determine which categories of arguments drew the most support from a wide range of cultures.
BACKGROUND ON TAX EVASION
People have been evading taxes ever since governments started collecting them (Adams, 1993). Sometimes they evaded because it was possible to do so with little thought to the ethics of the situation. Other times people evaded and attempted to justify their evasion on moral grounds. In a 1944 doctoral dissertation Martin Crowe summarized 500 years of theological and philosophical literature on ethical reasons for evading taxes and found that several arguments kept appearing in the literature. Some of the most frequently given reasons for justifying tax evasion on moral grounds were inability to pay, government corruption, high tax rates or not getting much in return for tax payments. The Crowe (1944) study more or less limited itself to a study of the Catholic literature in the field, some of which was in the Latin language. Crowe's thesis introduced the English speaking public to some of the Latin language literature on this point.
More recently a number of authors have addressed ethical aspects of tax evasion from a number of religious and secular perspectives. Inglehart et al. (2004) surveyed 200,000 people in more than 80 countries on a variety of issues, one of which was tax evasion. Torgler (2003) did a doctoral thesis on tax compliance that included a discussion of tax evasion ethics. McGee (2006) divided the arguments regarding tax evasion into three categories based on the Crowe study. He found that over the centuries various scholars have categorized tax evasion as never ethical, sometimes ethical depending on the facts and circumstances or always ethical.
Not much literature exists on the view that tax evasion is always ethical. The anarchist literature, as typified by Spooner (1870) in particular, takes the position that thee is never any moral duty to obey any law because all governments are illegitimate. Presumably that would include paying taxes. Block (1989; 1993) took a less dogmatic position. His studies searched for adequate justifications of taxation in the public finance literature but found that whatever justifications that were given were inadequate for some reason.
At the other end of the spectrum are studies that concluded tax evasion to always or nearly always be unethical. The usual reasons given were that there is a duty to God, to the state or to other taxpayers. Some of the Christian and Jewish literature takes this position, although several different justifications are given by different scholars.
Cohn (1998) examined the Jewish literature and concluded that tax evasion was always unethical. One reason for this conclusion was because there is a strain of thought within the Jewish literature that there is a duty not to disparage another Jew. If one Jew commits tax evasion it makes all other Jews look bad. …