What Tax Morale? A Moral Anthropological Stance on a Failed Cooperative Compliance Initiative

Lotta Bjorklund Larsen


This article sheds light on why cooperative compliance initiatives can fail even when introduced in a country where tax compliance is deemed to be high and which has a “successful” tax administration that scores high on taxpayer trust surveys. The country in question is Sweden.


The Swedish Tax Agency aims to make taxpayers pay “the right tax”, not necessarily the maximum tax, in order to increase tax compliance and thus societal trust in the Agency. One way in which to work towards this goal is to work proactively with large businesses, i.e. Multinational Enterprises (MNEs), for example, through so-called cooperative compliance initiatives. These “modern, efficient and successful” ways of working are currently in fashion among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members’ revenue authorities. However, the Swedish version of such initiatives was met with strong resistance and, today, very few MNEs participate. How can we understand this resistance given the good standing the Swedish Tax Agency is said to have among the taxpayers it serves (Skatteverket, 2013a, 2013b)?


In order to illuminate the contradiction between this “successful” Agency and the “failure” of this cooperative compliance initiative, this article explores various stakeholders’ moral stances on the issue. The article obviously encompasses the views of the Agency, but also includes those of enrolled MNEs, as well as some that declined to participate and various other stakeholders, such as policymakers, tax scholars, tax advisors and corporate interest organisations. By borrowing from Didier Fassin’s moral anthropological approach—not a moralising account, but an examination of moral reasoning among all stakeholders in the Swedish tax arena—we can better understand why the initiative failed. This approach is also helpful as proponents and opponents of the initiative could be found in all stakeholder categories.

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