Integrity Matters
November 5, 2003

Just because others cheat on taxes, it doesn't make it right

Question: (E-075)

Dear Jim:

I read that the number of Americans surveyed who think tax cheating "here and there" is acceptable is up 50% in the past four years. Is that possible? Then I looked further into the matter and found out the 50% increase is less scary when it is understood that the difference in the past four years, since 1999, is simply up from 8% to 12%. Yes, this is a negative trend, but some of the reaction seems overblown. What is the big deal? Doesn't just about everybody do it? Is cutting corners on taxes really so wrong?


If you are upset with the sensational reporting of statistics, you are not alone. You were smart to check the numbers and determine the real story. Yes, an increasing level of tax abuse is a concern. Saying it is up 50% sounds a lot worse than clarifying that the numbers are up 4%. Regardless of the reporting, tax cheating seems to reflect a tone of increasing mistrust and maybe even cynicism in our society. Certainly the lack of headlines announcing convictions related to corporate leadership scandals has done little to re-energize those honest folks who must work hard for their living. Even when substantial fines have been levied and paid by the very institutions that cost investors millions and billions of dollars, many have done so without ever admitting guilt.

Loyal and solid citizens may have developed a belief that accused "big shots" come to trial slowly and then hire expensive and sophisticated lawyers who help them to discover legal loopholes and escape routes that still leave the less wealthy taxpayer holding the bag. Might these "accountability-avoiding" maneuvers by those with power and influence increase anger and bitterness among frustrated observers who are caught in the financial pinch of the recent economic slowdown? Yes. Is this a legitimate reason to cheat on taxes? No.

The situation does remind me of an incident, just about the time some of these scandals were hitting the press. While getting a haircut, early one morning, a colleague of my barber walked by, and turning to us, being friendly, asked how I was. Wanting to bring some humor to the early hour, my comment was simply that I was happy to be getting a haircut and not be in jail. With a sheepish nod, followed by a smile, I laughed. However, what happened next was jarring. Her exact words, which still send a chill up my spine, were: "Well, if you were a big-time executive, you would never have to go to jail." She said a lot in a few words. Whether accurate or not, she captured the feelings of all too many in our culture. Such perceptions do not restore confidence and trust in leadership, in any way, and will not generate commitment to the common good, in business or for our society as a whole.

Integrity will not allow us to give up. As citizens of this nation, we have a number of important responsibilities. One of those duties is to contribute to the well-being of the society by being productive and shouldering the financial load for the liberties we enjoy. Freedom is not free and neither are the roadways we utilize to get to and from work. Police and fire services for our families and loved ones also come at a price. So too there are costs associated with protecting our citizens from invaders, whether as warring armies and navies or brutal terrorists who do not distinguish in their murders between members of the military or innocent civilians. Fresh water, clean air, safe transportation, edible foods, plus a whole variety of programs and services are provided to our citizens (perfectly or imperfectly) because our society expects nothing less. Each comes with a price. We are responsible for paying for these services. Taxation is the system our government has adopted to pay for the benefits it provides.

Is everyone paying their fair share? Others determine the right answer in this area. What we do know is that everyone is responsible to help sustain the nation, the state, the municipality and the community in which they live. Does everyone shoulder the load appropriately? The answer is probably not. Integrity-centered citizenship suggests that we make our opinions known, work hard to elect those who share our values and support the will of the majority. Cutting corners is not simply or solely about taxes so much as it is a reminder of the need for integrity-centered citizenship, economic stewardship and social responsibility. How we support the system (federal, state and local) sends signals that will influence the attitudes of our children and the grandchildren of our grandchildren. They learn from our choices and our behaviors what we have determined is important. Two fundamental integrity questions to be asked regarding the legacy we are leaving for present and future generations are these:

  1. What are we teaching by what we are repudiating?
  2. What are we valuing by what we are tolerating?

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