The Morality of Tax Avoidance

In the wake of the Panama Papers leak debates about the morality of taxation are back in vogue. Unlike tax evasion, tax avoidance is, by definition, legal. This is not the same thing as saying it’s acceptable. No one wants to live in a society where everything questionable is banned or where you cannot criticise someone for doing something legal.

There is certainly scope for closing the tax loopholes that create the biggest avoidance schemes. There is something fundamentally unfair about the very rich avoiding the punitive rates paid by ordinary people. But this is a policy question that can only be answered by serious proposals for reform, not self-righteous pontificating about tax dodgers being ‘disgusting’. And, in any case, the biggest problem with the UK’s convoluted and twisted tax code is that ordinary people are overtaxed due to, for instance, the insidious creep of fiscal drag. 

But given that, picking an example at random, having a beneficial interest in an offshore investment trust that does not pay UK tax (even if you do later pay UK tax on your dividends) is completely legal, is it ethical? The idea that people are obligated to enthusiastically pay as much tax as they can is perverse and absurd (it’s also usually hypocritical, but I’ll set that aside). The view that all taxation is theft may not have much currency outside of hardcore libertarian circles. The opposite view, that there’s no such thing as ‘your money’ and you have an absolute obligation to give up whatever the government thinks is fit, sadly seems to be gaining currency. 

The perspective that avoiding tax is inherently theft rests on some very peculiar assumptions. It needs to be accepted that current tax rates are either just, or not high enough, that the right things are being taxed in the right way, and that taking advantage of any loopholes is wrong. 

For instance, in order to think that setting up a company to avoid income tax is immoral, you need to assume that: (i) income should be taxed at a higher rate than corporate profits; (ii) there is an obvious and absolute moral distinction between income and profit; and (iii) there are objective grounds to determine when it is legitimate to register a company. 

And what about government encouraged avoidance schemes, such as ISAs and tax relief for risky investments? Is it wrong to take advantage of these?

It also needs to be assumed that providing the government with all the funds it demands is moral. It’s easy to talk about hospitals, schools, the roads, defence, and welfare. But that skirts over the real question of whether government should be funding these things at all and, if so, whether they should cost what they do. 

It also ignores less palatable areas of expense, such as spending on foreign wars, nuclear weapons, a quixotic and destructive drug war, nonsensical vanity projects, bloated and pointless government departments, and corporate welfare. The same people who attack tax avoidance also (I think correctly) decry much of this, yet remain absolutely committed to the ‘obligation’ to fund the state’s largesse above and beyond what the law requires. 

These issues may not have an obvious answer. But that’s exactly why tax dodging cannot just be lazily and self-righteously vilified as ‘disgusting’ by definition.