Legal vs. moral

May 21, 2013

While the categories of things that are legal and things that are moral overlap substantially, they are not identical. Some things are legal but immoral, for example, abortion. Some things are illegal but moral, for example, helping escaped slaves back when that was illegal.

When it comes to paying taxes, though, our only moral obligation is to comply with the law; no one should be considered morally obligated to eschew any legal means for reducing their tax obligation. Today Apple CEO Tim Cook will be appearing before a Senate committee, presumably so the Senators may berate him because Apple has structured their business in a perfectly legal way that avoids a higher tax bill. (They “only” paid around $6,000,000,000 in corporate income taxes last year. This hearing seems to have been triggered by Apple issuing something like $1,600,000,000 in bonds because the <2% interest rate is less than a tenth of the ~35% tax rate they’d have to pay if they just transferred some of their foreign profits to the U. S.) Google and other corporations have been facing similar political pressures in Europe. Note that although everyone admits they have done nothing illegal, these politician (who write the tax laws) are expressing outrage because they’re not funneling even more cash into the public coffers.

Ronald Reagan once said that government is like an infant: an insatiable appetite on one end, and no sense of responsibility on the other end. Senators would serve the country better by focusing on spending more responsibly (an actual budget would be a good start) rather than whining about perfectly legal behavior.

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