published Friday, February 1st, 2013

Will you pay a tax if no one is watching?

Boxes travel on a conveyor belt in the Chattanooga Amazon fulfillment center.
Boxes travel on a conveyor belt in the Chattanooga Amazon fulfillment center.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Would you volunteer to pay sales tax?

To pay or not to pay — that's the question thousands of Tennesseans face after receiving an email notice from online retailer Amazon stating that they owe Tennessee's use tax on their Amazon purchases.

Tennesseans are asked to fill out a special return on the state's website to calculate and pay the tax. And while citizens are legally required to pay up, there are a myriad of reasons many are choosing not to: the state can't easily enforce the collection, the process involves filling out an extra tax return, most people owe only a small amount, some think Amazon should have collected the tax when the products were purchased, and others think the email notice is a scam.

"Personally, until the state goes through everyone's credit card and bank statements to see every purchase made out of state and then sends everyone a bill, I see no reason to pay it," Derek Price wrote on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

Harrison resident Kelley Fitzpatrick disagreed.

"My family spent nearly $2,000 on Amazon last year and we owe barely more than $100 for sales tax now and we are definitely going to pay it," she said. "It's kind of funny, but more so just disheartening to see the same crowd that complains relentlessly about leechers and free-loaders shrug off their own obligations."

Herbert Burhenn, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, said he received an email but doesn't feel compelled to pay.

"It's such a little amount I'm not sure it's worth it," he said. "I think it's very unlikely people are going to pay taxes voluntarily, especially if they believe most of their fellow residents of Tennessee aren't going to."

He added he doesn't think it's a moral dilemma.

"I don't know that there's a great moral issue here. I think it's more a question of political administration," he said. "We're in this funny situation in which the state has decided not to collect, and then in a sort-of-hypocritical way we get this notice telling us maybe we should contribute it. It doesn't seem like a reasonable way to proceed."

John Wingard Jr., professor of philosophy and dean of humanities at Covenant College, said he thinks citizens are morally obligated to pay the tax.

"It seems to me that, provided the tax law in question is constitutional and otherwise morally acceptable, and paying it would not violate some weightier moral duty, then citizens who are subject to that law (in this case, the citizens of Tennessee) are both legally and morally obligated to pay the tax," he said via email. "Whether the law will be enforced by the state is irrelevant to the question of whether it is morally permissible to fail to pay the tax. If people fail to fulfill their moral obligation in this or any other case, then they act wrongly in the moral sense, period."

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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