Loaded Questions Help I.R.S. Get Answers It Wants in Survey

The IRS Oversight Board just released their latest Taxpayer Attitude Survey. The headline they’re pushing for it goes something like this: “Nine Out of Ten Americans Say It Is ‘Not At All’ Acceptable To Cheat on Taxes.” For the most part, the news media is going along with that.

And since this coincides with the embarrassing tax dodging of members of Obama’s proposed cabinet, we can expect these survey results to get more than usual play in the media.

But the survey uses loaded terms in its questions in order to provoke the results it reports. It is not so much meant to measure taxpayer attitudes as to shape them by manufacturing and publicizing a consensus. For example, the question that generated the survey’s most-touted result was:

How much, if any, do you think is an acceptable amount to cheat on your income taxes?

By using the loaded word “cheat” which by definition implies unacceptable behavior, the survey almost guarantees that respondents will label the behavior as “not at all” acceptable.

Other questions follow the same pattern:

It is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes. (Do you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or completely disagree?)

Well, if the question already assumes that the share is fair, what is there to disagree with? Even I think that it’s every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes; I just think that fair share is zero.

Tax collectors recognize that the perception of social norms of tax paying or tax evasion are very important considerations when an individual is deciding whether or not to cough up money on demand. The IRS is hoping, with tools like this survey and the help of a lazy news media, to make it appear that taxpaying and condemnation of tax evaders is the social norm.

This then allows lawmakers like Senator Tom Daschle to stand up and say things like “Make no mistake, tax cheaters cheat us all, and the IRS should enforce our laws to the letter” and people nod as though that were the accepted wisdom, although few people, least of all Tom Daschle, really think that.