The US Internal Revenue Service is known for many things, but having a sense of humour has hardly been one of them – until now.
Yet how else to explain a collection of 15 quotations about tax and tax evasion, on the tax collecting body’s website?
Admittedly, the collection is accompanied by a statement that makes clear that the quotes “reflect the opinions of their authors” and that their “inclusion here is not an official IRS endorsement of the sentiments expressed”.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to see the IRS as taking a realistic view of its flock of taxpayers, with the inclusion of author Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “the best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale”.
As British taxpayers rush to meet this Sunday’s self-assessment deadline, and Stateside Americans contemplate their deadlines (in the US this year it’s the 18th of April, though expats have until the 15th of June), we thought we’d publish what we like to call “The IRS’s Tax Quotation Collection.”
And, as a special treat for those slaving away on their tax forms, we follow the IRS’s quotation collection with our own compendium.
The IRS’s Tax Quotation Collection
• “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice
• “The power of taxing people and their property is essential to the very existence of government.” — James Madison, U.S. President
• “To tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men.” — Edmund Burke, 18th Century Irish political philosopher and British statesman
• “I am proud to be paying taxes in the United States. The only thing is – I could be just as proud for half the money.” — Arthur Godfrey, entertainer
• “People who complain about taxes can be divided into two classes: men and women.” — Unknown
• “No government can exist without taxation. This money must necessarily be levied on the people; and the grand art consists of levying so as not to oppress.” — Frederick the Great, 18th Century Prussian king
• “Like mothers, taxes are often misunderstood, but seldom forgotten.” — Lord Bramwell, 19th Century English jurist
• “Next to being shot at and missed, nothing is really quite as satisfying as an income tax refund.” — F. J. Raymond, humourist
• A tax loophole is “something that benefits the other guy. If it benefits you, it is tax reform.” — Russell B. Long, U.S. Senator
• “Few of us ever test our powers of deduction, except when filling out an income tax form.” — Laurence J. Peter, author
• “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” — Albert Einstein, physicist
• “Taxation with representation ain’t so hot either.” — Gerald Barzan, humourist
• “Where there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income.” — Plato
• “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.” — Will Rogers, humourist
Tax quotations the IRS missed
How, we wonder, could the IRS have left Benjamin Franklin’s arguably most famous tax quote of all out of its list of tax quotations?
We refer, of course, to “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Almost equally famously, American author Martha Mitchell included a variation on Franklin’s quote in her 1936 novel Gone With the Wind, where she has her heroine Scarlett O’Hara say: “Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them!”
Then there’s Lord Roy Jenkins’s classic quote about inheritance tax, much cited by British estate planners seeking to drive home the case for their craft. Jenkins – a former chancellor of the exchequer – described inheritance tax in a 1986 Commons debate as “broadly speaking, a voluntary levy paid by those who distrust their heirs more than they dislike the Inland Revenue.”
Of course, the IRS may not have chosen to use this particular quotation on its tax quotes page because it isn’t well known to American taxpayers, most of whom also would be unlikely to have heard of Roy Jenkins. (There is also the possibility that the IRS might not have wanted to be seen to include in its collection a quote that takes a swipe at its UK counterpart, the Inland Revenue.)
In any event, with the help of some of our friends in the business, including Prudential tax expert Gerry Brown, we’ve put together some quotes that the IRS overlooked in assembling its list of tax quotes:
• “Window frames rot. Iron structures rust. Tax systems become more complex.”
— Tim Harford, Financial Times, July 2014
• “The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that carries any reward.”
— John Maynard Keynes
• “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and critic
• “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”
— Jean Baptiste Colbert (French Economist and Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV of France. 1619-1683)
• “We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”
— Winston Churchill
• “The problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much.”
— the late US president Ronald Reagan
• “Modern (reverse) socialism: everybody gives according to their ability, and banks receive according to their needs”
— Anonymous, making the rounds as a tweet 2016
• “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence…but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”
— Adam Smith
• “A fine is a tax for doing wrong. A tax is a fine for doing well.”
• “In our society, a great deal of intellectual effort is devoted to tax avoidance. The most sophisticated attempts of the Houdini taxpayer to escape from the manacles of tax (to borrow a phrase from the judgment of Templeman LJ in W T Ramsay Ltd v Inland Revenue Comrs ) generally take the form described in Barclays Mercantile Business Finance Ltd v Mawson  UKHL 51;  1 AC 684, para 34:
“… structuring transactions in a form which will have the same or nearly the same economic effect as a taxable transaction, but which it is hoped will fall outside the terms of the taxing statute.
“It is characteristic of these composite transactions that they will include elements which have been inserted without any business or commercial purpose, but are intended to have the effect of removing the transaction from the scope of the charge.”
• The following is an excerpt from a Monty Python song, entitled “Accountancy Shanty”:
Sailing, sailing away,
It’s fun to charter an accountant
And sail the wide accountancy,
To find, explore the funds offshore
And skirt the shoals of bankruptcy!
It can be manly in insurance,
We’ll up your premium semi-annually
It’s all tax deductible,
We’re fairly incorruptible,
We’re sailing on the wide accountancy