In the United States, payment of taxes is based on “voluntary compliance.” We figure out what we owe on our own (or we pay somebody else to do it), and then we pay what we owe based on the honor system that we all learned in Kindergarden. Of course, when you pay less than your legal share, the IRS will bare its teeth and audit you to make sure you don’t get away without paying your tax debt. The IRS can impose severe penalties and criminal sanctions as well.
The IRS doesn’t have the resources to find and punish each and every tax cheat, so they must do what they can to control public perception. They do this by publicizing and leveraging stories, events, and statistics that motivate taxpayers to play by the rules. The IRS is very strategic about the timing of these stories. Unless you live under a rock, you have probably noticed that they can be found at every turn right around tax time.
Sometimes the message is “Look, U.S. taxpayers are honest with their taxes, and you should be too” (see IRS Tax Cheat Poll). But, by far the more common message is “Look what this guy did, and how much trouble he got into; you should avoid this.” Sometimes the intended audience is the taxpayer and sometimes the intended audience is the tax professional.
Here is a current example of the latter. The IRS recently went public with the disbarment of an Enrolled Agent named Lorna Walker. An Enrolled Agent is neither an accountant nor a tax attorney, but may represent taxpayers before the IRS. Their conduct is governed by Circular 230. Walker will be taking a mandatory 5-year vacation from her EA work because she stole money from her client that was intended for the IRS. She also prepared tax returns with phony Schedule C deductions.
And finally, if you still don’t think the IRS is concerned about PR and public perception, try explaining why they would consider spending $15 million on a PR contract.