Does Enforcement Reduce Compliance?

Shu-Yi Oei 

Boston College Law School held its first Tax Policy Workshop of the semester last Thursday and the speaker was Surly Blogger Leandra Lederman. Leandra presented a draft paper entitled “To What Extent Does Enforcement Crowd Out Voluntary Tax Compliance?” The draft isn’t publicly available yet, but you can email Leandra for a copy.

So, what’s the paper about? The standard economic model tells us that a taxpayer will weigh the magnitude of the penalty and the likelihood of audit to reach an “expected” cost of punishment for tax evasion. Allingham & Sandmo (1972). So, if the audit rate is low (which it is), the expected cost of evasion also remains low, absent draconian penalties. Yet, we see relatively high voluntary compliance rates in the U.S. Some scholars claim that this is a “puzzle” and theorize that there is some sort of “intrinsic motivation” to comply with tax obligations, regardless of the low expected costs of punishment. Leandra has pointed out in several articles that this simple comparison presents a false puzzle because it ignores information reporting (and withholding), which IRS voluntary compliance statistics show is highly effective. She argues that information reporting is akin to an invisible audit. Nonetheless, some scholars suggest that enforcement and deterrence action are “extrinsic motivators” that might actually reduce compliance by displacing (i.e., “crowding out”) preexisting internal motivations to comply.

Leandra’s paper synthesizes the empirical literature on the effects of audit threats and fines as well as the growing tax and non-tax literature on contexts in which enforcement can lead to reduced compliance. In brief, the paper finds:

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