The Difference Between Legal Tax Avoidance and Illegal Tax Evasion
Published 3/20/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
"Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes. Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: Taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant."
- Honorable Learned Hand, U.S. Appeals Court Judge, Helvering v. Gregory, 69 F.2d 809 (1934).
The above quote is one of my favorite tax quotes from law school and one that I concur with wholeheartedly. It was a historical statement from a well known and respected former United States Appeals Court Judge regarding the minimalist extent of our obligation as citizens to pay taxes. The opinion reflects the view that we have no ethical or even patriotic duty to pay taxes beyond what has been legally assessed upon us. Thus, as the message advocates, it is within our compete given right to do everything within legal boundaries to minimize our personal tax liability exposure. If society deems the income and tax bracket disparity to be unfair or unjust, it is our duty as voters to ensure the government legislates fairly, rather than evade individual tax obligations out of protest.
Difference and Distinction Between Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion
The practice of tax avoidance is essentially the credo of most tax attorneys and tax preparers. It is completely legal and there should be no moral or patriotic implications as it is in complete compliance with the law. Tax avoidance is simply the practice of working within the legal confines of tax law and regulations to maximize tax deductions while minimizing tax liability. In contrast, tax evasion works outside the rules by trying to duck legal obligations by hiding income through nondisclosure, or improperly taking deductions that one is not qualified for. There is a clear distinction between the two.
However, many people seem to inaccurately equate legal tax avoidance with the same type of immorality implications of those who practice tax evasion. For example, there are some who point out that wealthier people, through clever tax manipulation and deductions are able to drastically keep their tax liability very low. Even the Oracle of Omaha himself, Billionaire Warren Buffet noted that he only paid a 17.7% tax rate on his $46 million of taxable income in 2006, while his own employees paid an average 32.9% tax rate. His own receptionist reportedly paid a 30% tax rate.
This might not seem fair in my eyes or yours, but none of these moral questions obligate Warren Buffet or anyone else from having to pay more taxes than they are required to do so, as long as they fully comply with all existing tax regulations. If there was truly an injustice or immoral component or dichotomy to the current tax structure, it is the obligation of the federal government to implement a fair taxation policy, and ours as voters to ensure that the government do so.
We Should Not Confuse the Government's Duty To Create A Fair Universal Tax System As Our Own
It's been said that there are certain things in life that are simply inevitable, including death and taxes. Society needs taxes to function and requires an empowered government to execute the uniform exaction. Making the tax system voluntary would obviously never work because individuals would not be able to effectively enforce the collection without resorting to vigilante tactics. Thus it's a necessity to have a strong government that can legislate and enforce tax codes, and mandate obligatory payments based on whatever sliding scale system it deems in the best interest of society. We have expressly given the government this power to legislate fair marginal tax brackets and to create an equitable system of tax deductions and tax credits to promote certain values and interests for the betterment of society.
It is not our own individual duty to draft our own federal tax returns to what we personally think will benefit the government. That duty has already been delegated away. Our responsibility as citizens is to operate in good faith within that tax framework to ensure we legally abide by the rules. If the day comes when we deem change is necessary, then our role is to change the individuals to whom we have delegated this legislative power to. However, our framed roles as taxpayers never expands beyond mere compliance.
So Long As We Abide By All Legal Tax Codes, We Are Free To Maximize Opportunities
Because our tax system is universally applied with every single income producing resident subject to it, we should not feel any moral, ethical, or patriotic duty to pay extra beyond what is demanded of us. So the next time you sit at your desk to prepare your tax return, you should not feel guilty about being able to cleverly duck certain tax obligations through legal manipulation. So long as you are fully abiding by the tax code, you are fully in the right. Our duty is to put the right people in power to make these difficult social and moral choices for the betterment of society. Once the universal tax codes have been laid in place, we are perfectly within our right to use every legal trick, tax loophole and strategy to minimize our own tax assessment to the betterment of ourselves.
As the taxpayer, we are under no obligation to provide any more to the government than we are required to. The tax code and our tax obligation is not in the nature of church tithing that we voluntarily offer out of altruistic feelings or charitable obligation. It's a regulated and systematic way for the government to mandate fairness and to ensure equality of its citizenry. There is no tip that needs to be paid to the government. This is not a restaurant and the servers are not being paid minimum wage and dependent on our generosity. So long as we abide by legal regulations and aren't resorting to the illegal practice of tax evasion, we are within our legal and moral right to try to reduce our own tax liability down to zero (if possible).
Thus the next time you feel guilty about being able to successfully and properly claim a whole slew of deductions, don't be. There is nothing inherently wrong with the legal practice of tax avoidance. Thus, pay what you owe and nothing more. That's the most responsible thing we can all do.