TOPIC GUIDE: Tax Incentives

"It is wrong for countries to offer tax incentives to attract investment"

PUBLISHED: 29 Jan 2016

AUTHOR: Adam Rawcliffe

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On the 23rd November American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a deal to buy Irish Botox maker Allergan in a deal worth $160 million, one of the largest corporate mergers in history [Ref: Reuters]. Pfizer became the latest of a number of tax ‘inversion’ deals, where a larger company purchases a smaller company in order to relocate its headquarters to a new domicile with a lower corporate tax rate - a practice which has also involved American companies such as Burger King, Liberty Global and Medtronic [Ref: New Yorker]. Despite the fact that Pfizer were acting within the law, the deal was greeted with derision by the media, who saw the Pfizer-Allergan merger as an example of yet another corporation exploiting tax loop holes in order to maximise profits [Ref: Guardian]. The scandal ties in to a much larger debate surrounding the efficacy of countries offering competitive tax arrangements in order to attract foreign direct investment; a policy most famously used by countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and the UK, as well as crown dependencies and overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands [Ref: Telegraph]. Opinion is split as to whether tax incentives are wrong both ethically and practically. With opponents arguing that corporations which seek to pay less tax are avoiding their responsibility to contribute to the societies in which they operate, creating an unfair, unethical system which simply does not work. This view is contested by supporters though, who suggest that tax incentives are just a logical component of a globalised free market; and claim that big business is often portrayed unfairly, when in reality it benefits society more than it harms it. Broadly speaking then, what are the ethics of tax incentives – are they a help, or a hindrance?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Are tax incentives ethical?
Defined as: “Deduction, exclusion, or exemption from tax liability, offered as an enticement to engage in a specified activity (such as investment in capital goods) for a certain period” [Ref: Business Dictionary], tax incentives polarize opinion around the world. Critics argue that corporations take advantage of competitive tax rates internationally in order to make more money for their shareholders, whilst still maintaining operations in the country that they are leaving [Ref: Guardian]. The Guardian newspaper makes the point that while individuals “rarely move in response to tax changes - flighty financial capital does move” to find the most favourable tax arrangements [Ref: Guardian]. If ‘Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society’, it could be argued that avoiding paying an appropriate amount, undermines tax as a moral responsibility [Ref: WikiQuote]. Within this context, many are now of the opinion that tax incentives are fundamentally unfair and unethical, because they mean that countries end up, “depleting the contributions of major corporations and leaving citizens to pick up the tab” [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, it is claimed that tax competition gives big corporations an unfair advantage over smaller, local companies, because they can use complex offshore tax models to increase revenues, which often leads to the smaller companies going out of business because they cannot compete [Ref: Guardian]. That said, on the other hand, tax competition is largely supported by classical economic theory. In 1956 Charles Tiebout argued that in a globalised world, it would be logical for people to move to countries with the most efficiently run public services for the least amount of tax possible [Ref: Journal of Political Economy]. And on a practical level advocates say tax competition is far from unethical, and is actually evidence of the free market at work; paying less tax allows multinationals to pass savings on to customers, pay higher wages to employees and ultimately invest more in to the societies in which they operate [Ref: New American]. For example, Pfizer CEO Ian Read, claimed that the Allergen merger will give his company greater ability to invest in America and provide more money for its research and development department [Ref: PR Week].

Do tax incentives work?
American business magnate Warren Buffett once remarked that: “I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone… shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on a potential gain” [Ref: Guardian], which calls into question the need for tax incentives at all. This is because: “Above all, investors want good roads, a healthy and educated workforce, and the rule of law. All of which mean tax.” [Ref: Guardian] However, despite these misgivings, there are many who maintain that tax incentives do work. They argue that rather than scapegoating big business, governmental bodies should focus on simplifying and lowering tax rates. This is vital due to the fact that economically prosperous countries must be attractive to foreign investors who look for competitive conditions with simple rules and minimal red tape [Ref: City A.M.]. And as columnist Alex Newman states, “the benefits of tax competition, low taxes, and economic freedom are clear — liberty, prosperity, higher wages, more investment, more jobs, more growth, and a better society.” [Ref: New American] Advocates also point to success stories. Ireland exceeded tax revenue performance targets in 2015 by €800 million, 80% of such can be attributed to money raised from corporation tax, with many crediting this to moves by a large American multinational to book certain profits in its Irish division that were previously booked offshore [Ref: Irish Times]. And politically, supporters of tax incentives note that national governments must be free to set their own rates as a matter of sovereignty, and suggest that if governments and organisations such as the EU had their way, taxes would always be set at the highest rates, which would drive business away [Ref: City A.M.].

Tax incentives and the developing world
Favourable tax incentives have become common place in the developing world in recent years, sparking debate about whether it benefits or hinders economic growth in these countries. A damning report published by a group of NGOs claimed that in 2012 tax incentives for six firms, amounted to 59% of Sierra Leone’s government budget [Ref: Guardian]. It concludes by stating that “tax breaks for investors have done little to help the country’s poorest people, draining resources needed for critical public services.” [Ref: Guardian] Together with this, tax incentives ranked 11th out of 12 location factors in a United Nations Industrial Development Organization survey of 7000 firms in 19 African countries. And Investor Motivation surveys in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, showed that over 90% of investors would still have invested even if tax incentives were not provided [Ref: OECD]. However, others are more sanguine, and say that without global tax competition, business would have no incentive to invest in new, perhaps poorer countries, and economic development would be stifled as a result [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. They point to Kenya, which has projected economic growth of between 6-7% over the coming year, whilst offering exemption from corporation tax to companies new to the country [Ref: Mail & Guardian Africa]. So what are the pros and cons of tax incentives? Is it “always harmful” [Ref: Guardian] for countries to offer tax incentives to attract investment – and who gains and who loses in such arrangements?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Amazon Scammed America’s Hurting Cities

Alex Shephard The New Republic 12 November 2018

Why Apple’s low-tax deal is no blueprint for Brexit Britain

Fintan O'Toole The Guardian 4 September 2016

Protecting the tax base: why it’s important to block tax inversions

Jared Bernstein Washington Post 19 November 2015

Tax competition - a threat to economic life as we know it

Peter Dietsch Open University Press 14 October 2015

Tax evasion: the main cause of global poverty

Bella Mosselmans Huffington Post 28 February 2014

My journey into the tax justice movement

Dereje Alemayehu Huffington Post 13 June 2013

Heard that countries should ‘compete’ on tax? Wrong

Ellie Mae O’Hagan & Nicholas Shaxson Guardian 18 April 2013


In praise of tax havens

Oliver Riley Adam Smith Institute 3 March 2017

Globalist assault on tax competition rouses opposition

Alex Newman New American 13 July 2015

How to stop the inversion perversion

Economist 26 July 2014

Does tax avoidance really do evil?

Tim Black Spiked 20 May 2013


The New York Hustle of Amazon’s Second Headquarters

Anand Giridharadas The New Yorker 17 November 2018

Why firms are fleeing

James Suroweicki New Yorker 11 January 2016

The stateless company plays a risky game

John Gapper Financial Times 6 January 2016

The Pfizer-Allergan Merger is a Disgrace

John Cassidy The New Yorker 23 November 2015

What’s wrong with tax avoidance?

Mark Rowney New Statesman 20 April 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

From Seattle to Luxembourg: how tax schemes shaped Amazon

David Pegg The Guardian 25 April 2018

Peer Pressure: Tax competition and developing economies

Michael Keen World Bank 11 July 2017

A stable Executive and corporation tax control is a good start for 2016

Angela McGowan et al Belfast Gazette 8 December 2015

The Pfizer-Allergan merger is a disgrace

John Cassidy New Yorker 23 November 2015

Protecting the tax base: why it’s important to block tax inversions

Jared Bernstein Washington Post 19 November 2015

Inequality will continue until corporations stop avoiding tax

Gabriel Zucman The Guardian 11 October 2015

What’s wrong with tax avoidance?

Mark Rowney New Statesman 20 April 2015

The other half

Claire Melamed Aeon 24 September 2014

Where in the world can you pay the least tax?

Nic Cicutti The Telegraph 19 July 2014

Tax evasion: the main cause of global poverty

Bella Mosselmans Huffington Post 28 February 2014

Google, Amazon, Starbucks: The rise of tax shaming

Vanessa Barford & Gerry Holt BBC News Magazine 21 May 2013

Avoiding tax may be legal, but can it ever be ethical?

Phillipa Foster Back Guardian 23 April 2013

Tax competition and the myth of the ‘race to the bottom’

Vera Troeger Chatham House 4 February 2013

Tax incentives and exemptions not necessary to attract investment

Yolande Vamusse Institute of Development Studies 20 December 2012

As companies seek tax deals, governments pay high price

Louise Story New York Times 1 December 2012

Tax havens at the heart of the EU

David Franks Telegraph 17 November 2010

A pure theory of local expenditures

Charles M. Tiebout JSTOR October 1956


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

EU announces plan to scrap member state veto on tax policy

Jon Stone The Independent 15 January 2019

Paradise Papers revealed ‘commoditisation’ of tax avoidance

Gareth Hutchens Guardian 15 January 2018

Ikea could face €1bn in back taxes as EU probes sweetheart deal

Leo Cendrowicz Independent 18 December 2017

OECD countries in bout of corporate tax competition

Vanessa Houlder Financial Times 13 September 2017

France and Germany planning assault on Ireland’s corporation tax

Gavin McLoughin Irish Times 8 August 2017

The problem with corporation tax

Kamal Ahmed BBC News 10 May 2017

Riddle of UK’s rising corporation tax receipts

Gavin Jackson and Vanessa Houlder Financial Times 26 April 2017

Tax Justice Network Financial secrecy index

Financial Secrecy Index 2 November 2015

EU committee pushing to remove tax competition

Accountancy Age 28 October 2015


Pfizer finally gets what it wants: lower taxes

Wall Street Journal 24 November 2015

The moral purpose of tax

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 8 November 2014

Taxing our way to a fairer society?

Battle of Ideas 20 December 2012

Tax avoidance

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 24 March 2012

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