Amazon's Tennessee Customers Will Probably Get Right on Paying This Tax

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Apparently Amazon is sending out letters to its Tennessee customers reminding them that, right now, under Tennessee law, they're obliged to pay taxes on Internet purchases. Judging by the response in my Twitter stream, many, many folks did not know this.

They thought they didn't have to pay taxes on Amazon purchases until Amazon begins collecting it.

But no:

Haslam spokesman David Smith said consumers have been required to pay "consumer use" tax to the Tennessee Department of Revenue when making an online purchase from any retailer that does not collect sales tax.

I set out to see how easy it was to be a good Tennessee citizen.

It took me a good 10 minutes to find the required form. The Tennessee Department of Revenue's website isn't set up very intuitively, and the tax forms are listed only by their official names, not by what you might guess they'd be called, nor do they come with good descriptions of what they are. In other words, if you don't know what form you want, you have to open each one to find it.

Here it is. Yes, here we live in the modern era and the form is a PDF you CANNOT fill out online. Worse than that, the taxpayer has to provide the local tax rate and know whether they've bought a digital or a non-digital item. There's no definition of either term.

Plus, you can't pay online. Every time you buy from anyone online, you're supposed to figure out where this form is, figure out the legal definition of what you've purchased, figure out your local tax rate, print this out, fill it out, write a check, and mail the whole thing in.

From what I can tell, you need to be a detective, an accountant and a tax attorney just to pay this stupid tax, if you felt inclined. It is no wonder few people feel inclined.

So, now we have a situation where people have been buying things online and from catalogs for decades (you've been required to pay this tax since 1947) and becoming accidental scofflaws because they didn't know to pay the tax, and paying said tax is a ridiculous exercise in hoop-jumping.

Think about that. You may consider yourself a law-abiding citizen. But if you've purchased even one thing from Amazon and failed to pay this tax, you are a lawbreaker.

And this is a problem that predates Amazon. There's something wrong with a philosophy of governance that turns well-intentioned people into lawbreakers without their knowledge.

How is anyone supposed to feel obliged to live within the rule of law, if the literal laws are so Byzantine that you can't help but break them?

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