DP10372 Norms, Enforcement, and Tax Evasion

Author(s): Timothy J. Besley, Anders Jensen, Torsten Persson
Publication Date: January 2015
Keyword(s): poll tax, social norms, tax evasion
JEL(s): H26, H71
Programme Areas: Public Economics
Link to this Page: www.cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=10372

This paper studies individual and social motives in tax evasion. We build a simple dynamic model that incorporates these motives and their interaction. The social motives underpin the role of norms and is the source of the dynamics that we study. Our empirical analysis exploits the adoption in 1990 of a poll tax to fund local government in the UK, which led to widespread evasion. We also exploit a series of natural experiments due to narrow election outcomes, which induce shifts into single-majority local governments and lead to more vigorous enforcement of local taxes. The econometric results are consistent with the model’s main predictions on the dynamics of evasion. “A widespread view among tax scholars holds that law enforcement does not explain why people pay taxes. The penalty for ordinary tax convictions is small; the probability of detection is trivial; so the expected sanction is small. Yet large numbers of Americans pay their taxes. ... Some scholars therefore conclude that the explanation for the tendency to pay taxes must be that people are obeying a norm — presumably a norm of tax payment or a more general norm of law-abiding behavior.” Posner (2000, page 1782)