Circa 1765, the British-American colonists' measley per capita tax burden of one shilling a year -- almost the lightest in the Western world, with or without representation -- caused enough resentment toward the king's tax collectors to fuel a revolution.
By the 1980s, a new, if more diffuse, taxpayer revolt seemed to be on the rise, kindled by the public's anger toward Big Government and a byzantine tax system fraught with inequities. Authoritative voices warned that, for the first time in the modern era, growing resistance to taxation -- especially among small businessmen -- threatened the nation's voluntary system.
The rate of cheating on taxes has increased nationwide in recent years, tax professionals say, but it is hard to pin down how far the revolt has spread. The Internal Revenue Service doesn't document how much cheating it is aware of.
Clearly, there is widespread cynicism about the tax collection process. A new public opinion survey by Yankelovich, Skelly and White found that "one-third of taxpayers clearly is receptive to the idea of tax cheating at some level." One-third is strongly opposed to tax cheating and one-third is ambivalent and "susceptible to being swayed either way," the survey said. Two out of three taxpayers believe they have to pay more than their fair share, the survey found.
But the poll did not indicate a significant increase in admitted cheating. Overall, nearly one in five taxpayers said they had cheated on their federal income taxes -- a rate consistent with the results of past studies. Most of those who admitted cheating said they only did it once or twice and in small amounts.
The available evidence still suggests that modern Americans more than almost any other industrialized peoples have accepted the tax burden and have maintained a relatively stable love-hate relationship with their tax bite.
The reasons, according to specialists, are a combination of moral or social values, a fear of being caught cheating, and a system which, as one expert put it, "takes the money before people can get their hands on it."
The most striking finding in the Yankelovich survey is that a person's social values determine whether he or she will cheat, rather than, say, attitudes toward government or the IRS.
People whose values "support acceptance of fluid standards of honesty and reflect cynicism about the human condition" are more likely to cheat Uncle Sam, said the survey sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service (and appropriately, paid for with 237,719 taxpayer dollars).
Moreover, it found there is currently a "relatively high predisposition" to cheating based on those values, especially among the less-educated, under-25 age group, and a lot of resentment that the rich don't pay their fair share.
The most widely endorsed rationale for cheating was the following: "Since a lot of rich people pay no taxes at all, if someone like me underpays a little, it's not a big deal."
The new Yankelovich survey notes that, predictably, the opportunity to cheat played a role in determining who admitted actually cheating, as opposed to those who said they condone cheating. Still, a relatively large proportion (66 percent) of those who were categorized as having a greater opportunity to cheat (such as self-employed professionals) and who also accepted the notion of cheating nevertheless said they do not cheat.
This group of noncheaters had a higher proportion of women and nonwhites, was less well-educated and younger than the group that admitted cheating. Most importantly, perhaps, the noncheaters expressed "higher levels of fear of getting caught." (The report adds that this fear may have inhibited them from admitting cheating, if not from actually cheating, thus skewing the findings.)
Admitted cheaters tend to be in their peak earning years, making $25,000 or more, and better educated.
A heavily-blue-collar, and younger group the survey called "scramblers" is the most likely to acknowledge cheating -- usually by concealing cash income or outside income. And they showed little need to rationalize their behavior.
While most forms of tax cheating were frowned on by most tax payers, illegal barter ("trading or exchanging goods or services with a friend or neighbor and not reporting it") is an exception, rated as "highly acceptable" by 67 percent.
The survey was based on a random sample of active taxpayers, with some 2,200 in-person interviews conducted during mid-1984.
In order to "increase the likelihood of candor, the report said, it avoided using the word cheat and instead used phrases such as "it's okay to cut corners" in the questioning.
In many other industrial countries, no such euphemisms would be needed. In France, Italy and Spain, for example, tax evasion is regarded as a national sport, the experts say. Underground economies reportedly flourish in Germany, where Schwarzarbeiter (illicit workers) hide their incomes. And in Sweden, professionals avoid taxes through a barter system.
"It's not just the result of lax enforcement in those countries, but the norms and values of the population are such that it's kind of a game to evade taxes. It's not something that people disapprove of when others do it," said Karyl A. Kinsey of the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, a social psychologist who is preparing a study on the subject.
Paul F. Harstad of Peter Hart's polling organization concluded in a special report analyzing American attitudes toward taxation over more than three decades up to 1981 that there probably has been relatively little change. "It's something culturally unique about America, like asking why do we have so many deaths by guns. How do you account for such differences in societies?"
He suggested that a small part of the answer might be that, when income taxes were first adopted, they were supposed to hit only the rich, so that, in those early days, "It was a matter of pride to pay taxes."
In 1942, the federal income tax became broad-based rather than a tax only on the rich.
Since 1953, the federal income tax bite on the average family has increased as a percentage of income by one-third, and the total direct tax burden has virtually doubled as a percentage of personal income, according to Harstad. But the percentage of Americans who labeled their federal income taxes as too high grew from 66 to 74 percent -- during about the same period.
Blacks expressed more discontent with their taxes than the general population, but by far the most outraged group was union members, possibly because they tend to earn much higher wages than their nonunion counterparts and are often in two-earner families. They still perceived themselves as working class but they were facing 40 to 50 percent tax brackets, usually with no tax breaks other than those related to home ownership.
But anything approaching a radical response to the tax collector remains limited largely to a few activists making political statements, or to rare acts of violence from the lunatic fringe. (Congress recently beefed up the IRS arsenal of enforcement tools to deal both with noncompliance and more serious tax protests). Through the bitterly divisive Vietnam war, the inflationary bracket creep of the Carter administration and the talk of tax revolt surrounding California's "Prop 13" in 1978, Americans for the most part kept anteing up.
"As a country, we're very patriotic," said Barbara Cashion, a sociology professor at Georgetown University. "We have no sense that we're separate from those in power. In Europe, there is very much the sense that there's the powerful and then there's us. They are much more concerned with class and power differences."
Overwhelming majorities of Americans wanted President Reagan's tax cuts, according to polls, but when confronted with a choice between cutting taxes and other things, they balked, Harstad noted. For instance, in 1981 they preferred balancing the budget over a tax cut by better than two to one and they favored higher military spending over a tax cut by two to one