USA and Mexico: Cultural and Ethical Belief

tax cheating

The survey we are using asks an interesting question: Please tell me for each of the following actions whether you think it can always be justified, never be justified, or something in between? This question is asked for fifteen different possible actions.

Let’s begin by looking at four actions which can be roughly grouped under the title “white collar crime.” The four actions are:

  • Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled
  • Avoiding a fare on public transport
  • Cheating on taxes if you have a chance
  • Someone accepting a bribe in the course of their duties

We can summarize the salient results as shown in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1 | Accepting false benefits / avoiding fares is almost never justifiable
Country Age All (%) Protestant (%) Catholic (%) None (%)
False benefit Avoid fare False benefit Avoid fare False benefit Avoid fare False benefit Avoid fare
Mexico All 40 44 40 46 40 43 40 45
Under 30 35 38 43 48 32 37 38 38
Over 44 47 49 44 48 46 48 54 56
United States All 74 64 81 71 71 62 68 57
Under 30 60 45 68 54 62 41 54 41
Over 44 81 74 85 77 77 73 79 70

Those who selected 1 or 2 against a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 was “never justifiable” and 10 was “always justifiable”

Table 2 | Cheating on taxes / accepting a bribe is almost never justifiable
Country Age All (%) Protestant (%) Catholic (%) None (%)
Tax cheat Accept bribe Tax cheat Accept bribe Tax cheat Accept bribe Tax cheat Accept bribe
Mexico All 78 79 85 83 76 78 79 79
Under 30 75 76 85 82 72 76 77 75
Over 44 82 82 81 86 81 81 85 87
United States All 80 83 88 90 80 84 74 75
Under 30 69 66 76 76 77 70 63 60
Over 44 86 90 91 94 83 88 81 85

Those who selected 1 or 2 against a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 was ‘never justifiable’ and 10 was ‘always justifiable’

First of all, one would like to see numbers in every space exceeding 90% of the population who declared that white collar crime is almost never justifiable. But the truth is, you see very few results reported in the 90’s and some of them are less than half (50%) of the population.

Notice that the biggest variations are on the first two questions: claiming Tax cheats and avoiding fares. In Mexico, less than 50% of the population in most of the categories believe these two behaviors are almost never justifiable. For Mexicans under the age of 30, those who believe these behaviors are almost never justified drops to about 35% of the population, or over 10% less than those 45 and older.

Those in the United States are almost twice as likely to believe these behaviors are almost never justified. Similar to Mexico, those who are under 30 are 15-20% less likely to agree that these behaviors are almost never justified. Interestingly, the percentage of Protestants who agree is over 10% higher than Catholics and Nones.

As shown in Table 2, the answers for tax cheating and accepting bribes are more oriented toward the belief they are almost never justified. The responses from Mexico are consistent in that about three quarters of the population believes they are almost never justified. In the United States, we see some variation. First, those under thirty are from 15 to 25% less likely to state they are almost never justified. We also see that Protestants are 15% more likely than are Nones (those with no religious affiliation) to say that these actions are almost never justified. But even with these differences all categories are 60% and above.

Why do we see that those under thirty are less likely to say these forms of white collar crime are almost never justified? In fact, we also see that in the case of claiming Tax cheats over 50% of young, Mexican adults selected a number between 5 and 10, meaning they thought that the action was almost always or at least more often than not justifiable. We can’t tell from the data the reason for this difference based on age. In this case it could be the well known “It can’t happen to me” attitude held by many young adults; i.e., “I will never be caught.” Or it could be that benefiting from the public dime may seem more attractive to young adults than to older adults who are more likely to be contributing most of that “public dime” through their taxes.

Perhaps the most interesting result is the difference between the answers from Mexico on claiming Tax cheats vs. cheating on taxes. As shown, only 40% of Mexican respondents said that claiming Tax cheats was almost never justified, while 78% said that cheating on taxes was almost never justified. This result is very odd because both situations have the same root effect: taking money from the government. I suspect the huge difference is a result of how the government deals with these two transgressions. Perhaps those who claim Tax cheats are almost never caught or receive a light punishment, while those who cheat on their taxes are often prosecuted and punished.

In summary, a significant number of people in both countries believe that these illegal behaviors may be justifiable in many situations AND those under the age of 30 are more likely than their elders to hold a situational ethics view toward these illegal behaviors. It would be interesting to know how many of these respondents have actually done these illegal actions, but they were not asked the question.