International Cultural History of Tax Morale

About the Project

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.

Screenshot 2020-11-18 101244

Moral & Economy Video

Korinna Schönhärl: «Do we really have to pay our taxes honestly? Discourses in U.S. American, Spanish and West German business ethic publications in the 1950s»

How did different nations discuss citizens´ duty to pay their taxes? Are there differences in discourses about honest or dishonest tax payment behavriour? The paper investigates this question in a comparison of three publications from the field of business ethics in the 1950s in Spain, the USA and West Germany. The aim is to show that in this period of churches´ strong influence in society in all three nations, theologists dealt very different with the topic, concerning both the theological pre-assumptions and the practical guidelines they developed, even if they belonged to the same, transnational religious community. The paper argues that texts about tax morale are ideal sources to figure out how norms are constructed in societal discourse and to examine and compare the image of the “ideal citizen” in different nations.

The Presentation was held in septembre 2020 and can be found here (No. 8) or on YouTube

Official website conference " Moral Economy"


Tax Compliance

Tax Compliance: historical developments, legal limits and future challenges

Cum-Ex, Panama Papers or taxation of big-techs like Amazon or Google: Our web seminar discusses various tax compliance issues that are crucial for the assessment and implications of such cases. How has tax compliance developed historically? Where are the legal limits? What are the future challenges? The seminar started with a keynote lecture by Prof. Dr. Alfons Weichenrieder on the subject of "Tax morality, tax havens and the fine line between tax planning and tax evasion". Among other things, the issue of the influence of tax havens on international tax planning and tax evasion will be addressed. To what extent can international information exchange increase compliance and curb tax structuring?
The SAFE-IBF web seminar was part of the SAFE Policy Lecture Series, a forum for the discussion of current issues in financial market policy, and is a cooperation with the Institute of Banking and Financial History (IBF).

With Dr. Uwe Eppler, Prof. Dr. Christine Osterloh-Konrad, PD Dr. Korinna Schönhärl, Prof. Dr. Alfons Weichenrieder, Dr. René Höltschi.

The Webinar was recorded and can be watched here on Youtube.

Mehr Informationen:

  • Tax Morale in West Germany after World War II. A discourse analytical reconstruction, in: Leviathan, May 2019, p. 169-191 (in German).
  • Tax morales. A series of articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the 1960s, in: Hesse, J.O. et al. (eds.): Modern Capitalism. Institutions, Practices, Semantics, Tuebingen 2019, 475-492 (in German).
  • “The imperative of scrounging, cheating and working the system”: Discourses on tax morale in Western Germany at the beginning of the 1980s, in: History in Science and Teaching, in: GWU 70/11/12 (2019), 678–694 (in German).

World Economic History Congress 2022 (Paris) Session: Fiscal contracts around the world: the changing relations between state and citizen

State building relies on the capacity to collect revenue (Besley and Persson, 2009). Citizens are required to give up a fraction of their resources, which to some extent they do voluntarily because they expect the state to provide services in return – a concept that is called ”fiscal contract” (Levi, 1988; Timmons, 2005). The last years have seen a resurgence of historical fiscal studies, from economic history but also from neighbouring disciplines like sociology and political science. Some well-known contributions cover the period of formation of modern states (Yun-Casalilla et al., 2012) and the long nineteenth century in Europe (Cardoso and Lains, 2010), while more recent endeavours have addressed the second half of the twentieth century in rich countries (Hürlimann et al., 2018; Buggeln et al., 2017). Martin et al. (2009) joined together scholars from various disciplines around the fiscal sociology perspective. Frankema and Booth (2019) represents the last addition to the list, which seeks to define the fiscal traits of the developing, colonized part of the world.

The research gap is obvious: most studies on the fiscal contract are limited to the frame of one nation or at the most one broader region. The ”border” between the global South and North is seldom overstept. Thus the innovative idea of the session is to bring together researchers on the fiscal contract in different parts of the world. We will discuss taxing and spending principles and practices during the nineteenth and twentieth century, including both qualitative and quantitative perspectives. How did they vary in different historical, economic and cultural circumstances? The fiscal contract framework is a fertile basis for exploring the variations of societal relationships across the world, how they were formed and how they evolved through time.

The session abstract, participants, and current paper titles can be found in the updated programme.


Sara Torregrosa-Hetland (Lund University)

Korinna Schönhärl (Goethe University Frankfurt)

Gunnar Lantz (Umeå Universit)


Historikertag October 2021 in Munich. Section "How can citizens be made to pay their taxes honestly? Debates about causes of and remedies for tax evasion from antiquity to the 20th century"

As Peter Schumpeter expressed it in 1918, debates on taxation are extraordinarily useful material for historians to analyse the structure and power relations of a society. This is especially true for the discourse on (honest) tax payment behaviour: tax evasion withholds from the treasury the financial means on which it urgently depends to defend its national territory, to compose or maintain institutions or correct social inequality. The outage caused by tax evasion often results in an increase of the general tax burden, and thus in additional tax pressure on the honest tax payer.

But how can tax payers be made to pay honestly? From antiquity to modern times this question has been the subject of excited debates. Answers depend fundamentally on the interpretation of the causes: Did citizens evade or avoid their taxes because they perceived the tax burden as being too high or unnecessary, or the tax rate as being unfair? Or because they were displeased with their political representation and their power of co-decision? Or because penalties and controls were inadequate? Each narrative could be used to legitimize political demands. In the end they draw on competing visions of what society should look like. 

The transepochal session analyses conflicts about tax evasion across time and space: in Ancient Athens, the Holy Roman Empire (18th century), Israel in the first and Spain in the second half of the 20th century. The contributions analyse how in different historical epochs different groups of actors struggled over the authority of interpretation of the term tax morale, which would have enabled them to enforce remedies in line with their own political agendas. The session aims to show how the term tax morale was meaningful interpreted, focussing on the question how the underlying ideals of living together in society changed over time.

Organizers: Assaf Likhovski (Tel Aviv), Korinna Schönhärl (Frankfurt)


The Team

Nasrin Düll (student help)

  • Procurement of literature
  • Maintenance of the literature database
  • Research and compilation of materials
  • Evaluation of us-american newspapers 
  • and databases
  • Preparation of research reports
  • Public relations

Korinna Schönhaerl (project leader)


Nadya Melina Ramírez Lugo (student help)

    • Archival research in Spain
    • Evaluation of Spanish sources
    • Maintenance of the literature database
    • Research of Spanish literature

Wichtige Hinweise

Mär 24
17:00 Uhr

June 2021

Tax education in the 1980s: how Spain, the USA and West Germany tried to make their citizens pay taxes honestly.

Conference "Tax Evasion or Avoidance and Tax Havens"

24th-25th June at University of Lausanne


October 2021


53. Deutscher Historikertag.

5th-8th Oktober in Munich


Past Lectures