The Effect of Audit Burden on Subsequent Tax Evasion

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Taxpayers who are audited can incur both monetary and nonmonetary costs unrelated to their chosen level of compliance. We refer to these costs of being audited as “audit burden” and examine the effect of audit burden on subsequent compliance decisions. Importantly, audit burden does not include the costs related to any evasion discovered by an audit (e.g., penalties, unpaid taxes, or interest), but are the monetary and nonmonetary costs borne by compliers and evaders alike who are audited. Motivated by theory on cost-loss framing, we predict individuals who were initially noncompliant (compliant) on an audited return will subsequently increase (decrease) compliance. We test our hypotheses experimentally using real US taxpayers recruited from the Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk) platform. Consistent with our hypotheses, results from our primary experiment suggest burdensome audits are beneficial in reducing noncompliance but also result in greater noncompliance from individuals who were initially compliant. Follow-up experiments rule out alternative explanations and find: (1) our results are robust to alternative specifications of audit burden, (2) apologies may mitigate the unintentional negative effect of audit burden on compliers, and (3) monetary rewards demonstrate no mitigating effect. These results extend the literature on cost-loss framing, which previously focused on voluntary expenditures, by identifying the influence of framing compulsory expenditures. Practical implications to the IRS and other tax enforcement agencies are also discussed.


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