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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: January 2010

3 - Social representations of taxes


How is the state mirrored in citizens' minds? This is the question with which any investigation about the discipline that citizens exercise over their tax paying behaviour must start. Consciousness about the state leads to citizens' civic and tax ‘sentiments’ and to a fundamental attitude with regard to problems of ‘their’ state.

(Schmölders, 1960, p. 38)

Tax laws are difficult to understand and are of little interest to the ordinary taxpayer. This attitude can result from the belief that taxes are to be paid, taxes are unavoidable as income is taxed at source, or that attempting to understand the law is not worth the frustration due to its complexity. For instance, Calderwood and Webley (1992) investigated hypothetical work reactions to a tax rate decrease or increase. The majority of respondents thought they would not change their workload at all, while one-third thought they might work more, independent of a decrease or increase, and less than 10% would reduce the amount of their work. The authors concluded that taxation is simply not salient in the daily lives of most people.

While taxes might not be a frequently disputed issue in day-to-day conversations, people do try to make sense of their contributions to the community when taxes are due or whenever government spending is contested or new taxes are introduced. Moreover, people discussing taxation issues evaluate fiscal policy, tax rates and the use of taxes for the provision of public goods, as well as the interaction between themselves as taxpayers and tax authorities.