TOPIC GUIDE: Tax incentives (2018)

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

PUBLISHED: 05 Mar 2018

AUTHOR: Adam Rawcliffe and Rob Lyons

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In December 2017, it was announced that the EU was investigating whether furniture giant Ikea - founded in Sweden but now headquartered in the Netherlands - had been given a ‘sweetheart’ tax deal by the Dutch government, enabling the firm to avoid €1 billion in taxes. EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said that all firms “big or small, multinational or not, should pay their fair share of tax” she said. “Member states cannot let selected companies pay less tax by allowing them to artificially shift their profits elsewhere.” [Ref: Independent] Yet it is also clear that some governments in the EU have used low-tax regimes to encourage foreign investment. Amazon Europe, for example, is based in low-tax Luxembourg, processing sales there to avoid higher taxes elsewhere [Ref: Guardian]. Many EU countries offer tax breaks to attract wealthy individuals and companies [Ref: Telegraph]. It’s not just European companies that avoid tax by changing the country they are legally based in, even when most of their business is done elsewhere. For example, in November 2015, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a deal to buy Irish Botox maker Allergan in a deal worth $160 billion, that would have been one of the largest corporate mergers in history [Ref: Reuters]. Four months later, the deal collapsed after the US Treasury unveiled plans to wipe out the anticipated tax advantages (FT ).

The Pfizer deal would have been 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]. Opinion is split as to whether tax incentives are wrong both ethically and practically. Opponents argue that corporations that 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, 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?
Tax incentives are 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 polarise 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. Tax campaigners Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Nicholas Shaxson make 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’ [Ref: WikiQuote], it could be argued that those who avoid paying an appropriate amount undermine tax as a moral responsibility - a question raised again by the so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ in 2017, which appeared to reveal international tax avoidance by big companies, rich celebrities and even the royal family [Ref: Guardian]. 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 profits, which often leads to the smaller companies going out of business because they cannot compete [Ref: Guardian]. 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 Allergan merger would 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’, 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]. Some observers have noted that the effect from the other side - that relatively high corporate taxes in the US have been the driver for firms declaring profits in other countries, benefiting those low-tax states at the expense of Americans [Ref: Big Think]. Advocates also point to success stories. Ireland exceeded tax revenue performance targets in 2015 by €800 million, 80 per cent of which 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 commonplace 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 per cent of Sierra Leone’s government budget. 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]. Moreover, it’s not clear that such measures really work, with tax incentives ranked 11th out of 12 location factors in a United Nations Industrial Development Organization survey of 7,000 firms in 19 African countries. And Investor Motivation surveys in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi showed that over 90 per cent of investors would still have invested even if tax incentives were not provided [Ref: OECD]. Indeed, some poorer countries, like Zambia and Mongolia, have acted against multinationals trying to move profits abroad to avoid tax [Ref: BBC News]. 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 had projected economic growth of 6-7 per cent in 2016, 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.


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

Peter Dietsch Open University Press 14 October 2015

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


Why firms are fleeing

James Suroweicki New Yorker 11 January 2016


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.

Peer Pressure: Tax competition and developing economies

Michael Keen World Bank 11 July 2017

In praise of tax havens

Oliver Riley Adam Smith Institute 3 March 2017

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

What’s wrong with tax avoidance?

Mark Rowney New Statesman 20 April 2015

Tax evasion: the main cause of global poverty

Bella Mosselmans Huffington Post 28 February 2014

As companies seek tax deals, governments pay high price

Louise Story New York Times 1 December 2012


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.

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

Riddle of UK’s rising corporation tax receipts

Gavin Jackson and Vanessa Houlder Financial Times 26 April 2017


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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