Knock, Knock: The Taxman’s at Your Door! Practice Sense, Empathy Games, and Dilemmas in Tax Enforcement

Carlene Wynter, Lynne Oats

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Tax administrators are empowered by the state to secure compliance with tax obligations. Enforcing compliance on the ground is complex, and street-level administrators often engage in the “art of the possible,” leading to dilemmas in the field. This paper examines tax administrators’ practices with regard to Jamaican property tax defaulters with outstanding tax liabilities in excess of 3 years. Drawing on interviews with tax administrators and other key agents, we find that tax administrators reposition themselves from objective enforcers to empathizing officials engaging in schemes of action, doing what they can do rather than what they should do. This is a practical-sense approach to securing compliance. We identify two forms of empathy, assimilated and cynical, and conclude that administrators’ empathetic identification with defaulters does not necessarily arise solely from concern for social cohesion, or inter-subjective compassion, but also sometimes from self-interest.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279–292
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number2
Early online date12 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2019. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.


  • Dilemmas
  • Empathy games
  • Practical sense
  • Tax administration practices


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