International Cultural History of Tax Morale
Not paying taxes: Tax evasion, tax avoidance and tax resistance in historical perspective
We want to examine the different practices and forms of withholding and avoiding personal and financial duties, fees and taxes over time and among different social, professional and other groups. This includes, on the one hand, open and organized tax resistance on moral, economic and political grounds, challenging the existing legal or political order and claiming more or a different form of tax justice and redistribution, or a modification of how taxes are collected. In these cases, personal or financial duties were often seen as a form of humiliation and a marker of subordinated status. On the other hand, taxes and duties were often not resisted publically but rather avoided or evaded in secret. These terms refer to notions that distinguish between legal practices of lowering the intended burden and thus saving taxes or fees, and maneuvers that were classified as illegal or criminal. Such categorizations, though, depend on changing moral and legal perceptions and/or on class-related negotiating power. Our workshop is interested in all forms of and motives for not paying public fees and taxes. Proposals also from ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and non-European history are highly welcome, as are contributions from the history of law, of science and philosophy and of political and economic thought, from historical sociology and political economy.
International cultural history of tax morale
Scandals like the ones about Apple´s tax avoidance in Ireland, about the “Paradise” or the “Panama” papers regularly evoke public indignation. Why exactly do those who can avoid doing so not pay their taxes honestly?
Is it really the case that they do not? Real tax payment behaviour is difficult to measure. Since the beginning of the 20th century scientists have developed methodologies to measure tax evasion. Even today the results are far from being satisfactory: there is always a high dark figure, and the results are seldom comparable. All that is clear is that tax payers have avoided and evaded taxes since the beginning of measurements, and that this has not changed.
Avoiding these methodological difficulties, empirical social sciences follow a different approach: they examine taxpayers´ attitudes towards their tax duties, which can be measured in public surveys: “Can it be justified to cheat on taxes if you have a chance?” (World Values Survey). Answers differ considerably, depending on age, gender, education, the weight of tax burdens experienced, perceptions of tax justice and many other factors. However, one aspect is not taken into consideration: do all interviewees in different regions worldwide understand the question in the same manner? Results differ strongly between countries, suggesting that this is not the case and that norms and values concerning tax payment behaviour are culturally determined and historically developed.
Analysing historical changes in tax morale is therefore a fruitful field of historical research: How did norms and values concerning the payment of taxes evolve and how did they change over time? The “Sociology of Morality”, engaged in the examination of the evolution and change of moral systems (e.g. Gabriel Abend: The Moral Background) provides methodological inspiration. On this basis, approaches from conceptual history and discourse analysis can be combined. The project “International cultural history of tax morale” thus examines the evolution of norms and values concerning the payment of taxes between the 1940s and 1980s in three different types of tax systems: the West German, the Spanish and the US American.
- Tax Morale in West Germany after World War II. A discourse analytical reconstruction, in: Leviathan, May 2019, p. 169-191 (in German).
Publications in preparation:
- “The imperative of scrounging, cheating and working the system”: Discourses on tax morale in Western Germany at the beginning of the 1980s (in German; in Review: History in Science and Teaching).
Nasrin Düll (student help)
Korinna Schönhaerl (project leader)
Nadya Melina Ramírez Lugo (student help)