Getting away with it?

Standards of honesty need fresh support these days as economic conditions in various countries tempt people to trim or abandon them. Any system requires a certain prevailing level of individual honesty to encourage a cementing trust among its parts. Today's situation is far from hopeless. But the warning signs are sufficient to demand a halt to what is happening.

Doesn't everybody know somebody who is "getting away with it"? Ordinarily law-abiding citizens are joining in the everday corruption that cheats their governments, their jobs, their fellow citizens. The multiplication of their wrongdoing threatens their nations from within just as surely as does an adversary from without.

The cheating takes different forms in different countries, usually involving tax evasion or black marketeering. But its essence is a breakdown of the simple , garden-variety compliance with the law that most citizens used to expect of each other. it frays the tissue of confidence between individuals and between individuals and institutions. If somebody at one end of the somebody at the other end -- or in the middle -- wonders if he ought to try it, too.

Without a reversal of the current trend, it won't be too long before the slogan is "everybody's doing it, so why shouldn't everybody do it?"

Recent evidence comes from both East and West.

Consider what George Feifer, longtime observer of Russia, found on a recent return there after ten years. Writing in the February Harper's he notes that he had always encountered beat-the-system machinations, but now "the once occasional deviations into illegality to cope with emergencies or obtain luxuries have become the norm." He saw a preoccupation with dostat'm ("to obtain"), an array of "bartering, exchanging, pricing, bribing, 'contacting,' arranging favors, paying 'incentives, 'finding caches, knowing what might be under which tables." He saw an enormous growth in moonlighting, with persons not simply working at a second job but providing private services usually on state time or using state materials.

A Western echo of the latter sort of thing appears in last week's New Yorker, as Jane Kramer writes about Britons dismayed by the increase in people doing what is "not done." The way in which one dishonesty feeds on another is suggested in this passage:

"The mechanic at Victoria Station who leaves at one in the afternoon to moonlight as a plumber has to have a friend to sign him out properly, and he owes that friend something. The repairman at the Electricity Board who takes a few day off each month will have his arrangement with the assignment clerk who obligingly fills out his schedule with a list of fictitious customers. The telephone man who installs new phones on the quiet and at half the official price needs a mate at the company warehouse to slip him those phones when he needs them."

Miss Kramer says it is impossible to calculate the cost of this corruption. But in the United States both private and public sources have at least come up with estimates of the cost to the US of what is variously called the "underground," "subterranean," or "irregular" economy -- the total of all the cash transactions, exchanges of services, or other business legal in itself which is used to evade the proper payment of taxes. Last year, for example, the Internal Revenue Service reported that unreported income from legal activities ranged from $75 billion to $100 billion, with the lost revenue ranging from $13 billion to $17 billion. And those figures were from 1976, when the tax loss would have been enough to cover most outlays for all federal independent agencies. Each year the hidden economy adds uncertainty to economic projections.

The sad fact is that tax authorities believe the evasions are on the rise, damaging America's picture of itself as a nation specially virtuous in paying its taxes on the basis of self-assessment. One university economist estimated the underground economy at $200 billion, or 10 percent of gross national product , in 1976. Another reached a figure of over $500 billion, more than a quarter of gross national product, for 1978. Returning $500 billion to the tax system, he calculated, would make it possible to reduce government tax receipts from 32 percent to 28 percent of total GNP.

Sobering as such estimates are -- subject to challenge as they may be -- the fundamental loss to the United States is in the undermining of national moral fiber. Ideas for reducing the loss should be considered: reforming the tax code , for example, to limit the incentive for evading it; adding to the IRS enforcement resources. But again the basic solution lies not in simply reacting to the everyday corruption but in preventing it by the return of individuals to being honest and to relying on their fellow citizens to be th e same.

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