Most people fill out their income tax forms by April 15 or at least file paperwork requesting an extension. Thomas Donlan of Barron’s examines our willingness to comply with this government rule.

American civility about taxes should have increased somewhat because of the ease with which normal citizens pay their taxes. The days of filling out forms in pencil on paper—and of IRS audits of more than 5% of all returns—are over. The burdens of tax calculation are lighter on those with modest investments and income derived from wages and salaries. And technology makes it easier to perform the annual ritual of obeisance to the powers that be.

Your personal-computer software downloads your financial information from your employer, your bank, and your broker. It asks a few silly questions and puts the numbers in boxes for you, performing all the tiresome calculations that follow.

Software doesn’t care about the horrible complexity of the personal income tax. The tax code’s web of preferences and penalties is knitted into a pattern of tame electrons. Even the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax yields to the turbo power of software. …

… There’s an offensive lie heard in the middle of April every year. Bureaucrats and politicians of both parties claim that the U.S. enjoys a “voluntary” tax-compliance system. It’s so voluntary that the authorities will put you in chains if you don’t volunteer.

If you want to live under a voluntary tax system, try Greece or Italy, where enforcement has been so lackadaisical that many citizens really didn’t have to pay taxes.

The Bank of Italy estimated that Italian small-business owners were paying less than half of what they should have owed in 2008, and that they were finding it easy to stash their secret wealth in foreign banks. In 2010, a solution appeared: Tax avoiders could repatriate money held in other countries and pay 5% of what they admitted owing.

The next year, tax collectors got tougher. They started tracing the owners of luxury cars to see if they reported plausibly large amounts of income. Two years after that, the prime minister lost his job.

In Greece, where at least a quarter of the economy lies in the tax-free shadows, almost a third of the citizens are self-employed. Greeks might be the most entrepreneurial people in Europe, but a better explanation should mention how much easier it is to cook the books in one’s own business.