What should I do? Should I call attention to her error and hand back ten dollars, or should I pocket the money and get out of the store?
I'll be honest, at various times in my life, I've done both. On the one hand, we have the thrill of getting ten dollars! Beating the man! And perhaps a gnawing guilt…
On the other, if we give the money back, we have the feeling, "I've been a sucker." And the pain of losing ten dollars. But no guilt – we did the right thing. Perhaps even a small satisfaction for having done so. I know which of these two courses I'd rather follow the next time someone gives me too much change.
Fortunately the government hasn't the slightest bit of conscience. It keeps the money. As soon as it leaves the store, it laughs at the cashier:
The N.C. Department of Revenue is sifting through a backlog of 230,000 unresolved tax returns from as far back as 1994 that include cases in which taxpayers are owed money – but are now unlikely to get it.
E-mail correspondence obtained by The News & Observer outlined the problem, and it revealed a debate within the department over how to deal with longstanding cases where its computer system flagged returns to indicate taxpayers who mistakenly overpaid their taxes.
The e-mail messages also show that the department knew about overpayments but did not refund them.
Although some of the overpaid returns are old, most are brand new. Before 2009, policy at the North Carolina Department of Revenue was, whenever a taxpayer was marked by a computer as having overpaid his taxes, the money was returned.
Since 2009, the taxman has a more realistic policy: When a taxpayer overpays, the Department will stay silent, saying nothing. If the taxpayer realizes his error within three years (as required by statute), the Department will, maybe, grudgingly refund the money. Otherwise, the Department will spend the money on no-bid construction contracts, and laugh at how it put one over on the citizen.
Of course this only works in one direction: A citizen who inadvertently stiffs the North Carolina Department of Revenue will be forced to pay a penalty, may have his name tarnished as a tax cheat, and could get to enjoy an audit or worse. If not paid back immediately, the Revenue Department will react with the fury of the wounded innocent at being cheated of its rightful gains.
All of which may be perfectly legal, but is it right? That's the question I'm here to pose: We teach our children to obey the government because, by and large, its laws are just. Because the government is disinterested in commerce, and has no profit motive, we teach our children that the government is more likely to be honest than some shopkeeper.
But if the government is just another shark in the marketplace, if the government just follows the law of the jungle, shouldn't we teach children to obey the government out of fear, and for no other reason? Unless of course, they can get away with it? That doing the right thing is for suckers and sheep, if you're smart enough?
That's certainly the lesson that the North Carolina Department of Revenue is teaching their parents.