Stopped in the street by a young person with a clipboard, and asked: ‘What do you think motivates people to pay tax?’, I would have to answer honestly: ‘Five to ten, with time off for good behaviour’. Were my inquisitor brandishing a microphone and staring into a camera, however, the same question might elicit all sorts of ego-enhancing responses such as: ‘A positive view of democracy’, ‘Trust in government’, or, teeth gleaming beneath the arc lights, ‘A belief in the redistribution of income’.
When it comes to tax, who we are, and who we want others to think we are, are entirely unrelated.
Last month, the OECD invited public comment on the update to its 2013 report, ‘What drives tax morale?’ (Google translate: ‘What motivates people to pay tax?’) The original report made some good points: Ghana (which, if one was going to single out one country out of over 190, was evidently as representative as any) sounds like it has residents queuing up to pay tax because of its policy of earmarking revenue for specific purposes (eg VAT for health care). Eminently sensible, if you can do it, although Western treasuries have traditionally had insurmountable difficulties even keeping their hands off earmarked National Insurance/Social Security contributions.
But, what aroused my suspicion about the whole enterprise were the high scoring answers (questions elicit a 5 down to 1, or 10 down to 1 sliding scale response) to some highly moral questions:
- People in Africa who agree that the tax department always has the right to make people pay taxes – substantially no country scored less than 3.5 out of 5.
- People in Latin America who think that tax evasion is never justified – only outliers scored less than 7.5 out of 10.
- People in Asia who would like to see more government spending even if it requires tax increases – 3.5 out of 5.
Of course, some of this partially depends on who they were asking. I am sure a lot of people in Asia would like to see increased government spending as long as others (the rich) are paying the increased tax. But the whole thing smells of acute bias, whatever the reason.
My most relevant takeaway from the recent update was a behavioural economics ‘experiment’ in Britain that has already had wide exposure in the press. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sent letters to taxpayers who had not paid their taxes on time. There was nothing new in that – generations of Britons (me included) remember the brown window envelope that ruined their day even before they had picked it up off the floor behind the front door. The innovation was in the language. Instead of British understatement asking them to ‘please pay their debt promptly’ (or words to that effect), taxpayers were greeted by exhortations such as:
“Nine out of ten people with a debt like yours, in your area, pay their tax on time”, “The great majority of people in your local area pay their tax on time” and “Most people with a debt like yours have paid it by now”.
We are told that the percentage of people paying their bill as a result of these letters went up from 34% to…wait for it…39%! I wonder what the numbers would have been had the letter arrived by registered mail, been printed in red, and promised prosecution two weeks before the letter actually arrived if the amount was not paid IMMEDIATELY.
I rest my case.