This past Saturday morning felt like mid-winter in Asheville, North Carolina, but was actually some weeks past tax day, and dozens of people were gathered in front of a federal building to say something about what federal income taxes are used for — something much more unusual than one would expect.
Posters carried messages including: “War steals from the poor” and “Defund Militerrorism.” This in itself was not so unusual. Opponents of war often use tax season to inform their friends and neighbors that roughly half of income tax dollars go to war preparation. We could have the educations and health and happiness that other nations have if we didn’t waste our money on the military, we say. We’d have more and better jobs, and jobs we could feel better about, we tell people.
If only our taxes weren’t put to such bad ends.
But the people gathered from across the country in Asheville on Saturday were in town for a meeting of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. They had gathered on Saturday morning to announce the awarding of grants of thousands of dollars to a long list of great humanitarian causes — all the things we wish our taxes were going to. For these people, this is in fact what their taxes are going to. Many of them have put the dollars they owe in taxes into one of a number of funds set up for this purpose. They can take their money back if they choose, but meanwhile the interest it earns goes to worthy causes of their choosing in the form of these grants announced in something more like a celebration than the usual tax-day lamentation that war opponents are all familiar with.
Following the announcements in front of the federal building, the small crowd stretched out in a long single-file line walking through Asheville, posters held high, making a tour of locations in the lives of the homeless and destitute, locations in need of the money that went to buy the bombs Israel was just then dropping on Syria.
It is possible to not pay your taxes and to use that refusal as a protest of war spending. It is possible to withhold the portion of your taxes that goes to war preparation (although of course you have no control over what the government does with the portion that you pay). It is possible to withhold a token amount in protest. It is possible, whether you pay your taxes in full or not, to include with your filing a letter informing the IRS of your objection to the war portion of the tax bill. And people are taking all of these steps, some at serious sacrifice, most without any great difficulty.
Congressman John Lewis introduced last session, and is expected to again, legislation that would allow those who object to funding war to have their taxes used only for non-military purposes. If this legislation were to pass, and if large numbers of people were to begin making use of it, the war machine could be defunded — and everything else be more greatly funded — without any personal risk to any participants.
In the meantime, tax resisters must violate the law — even if they can choose to do so in the name of upholding a higher law (such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact) or a moral law that overrides the other kind.
I believe that those resisting war taxes deserve our gratitude, and that many more should join them. They are a welcoming movement that encourages and supports those participating in war tax resistance at any level, participating sporadically, or engaging in long-term resistance for decades. They do not set up war tax resistance as a tactic in competition with rallying, educating, lobbying, marching, counter-recruitment, or other approaches to advancing economic conversion. Rather, they participate in all of these other approaches as well. But they urge those who protest war to consider the possibility of ceasing to pay for it.
War tax resistance is not for everyone. Some can best contribute to the cause of peace and justice by other means. But it is an approach many can take.
A lot of war tax resisters choose to live a lifestyle that brings in so little income that they owe no taxes. What distinguishes them from anyone else living “below the line,” is that they inform the government and anyone else they can that they have chosen to do this and why. So, if you oppose material consumption, if you choose to live off-the-grid, if you can feed and care for yourself without a big salary, and you already don’t owe taxes, you might want to consider whether part of your motivation in choosing that lifestyle is war tax resistance. If it is, please consider the fact that nobody knows this unless you tell them. Tell the IRS and Congress. Tell the media. Tell everyone you can. It costs you nothing but could do a world of good.
Other war tax resisters owe taxes but don’t pay them, or don’t pay part of them, or don’t file at all. I consider a lot of these people heroes. I’m not naming them, because it has traditionally been the high-profile resisters who have been targeted for seizure of property or prosecution (actions that are extraordinarily rare and growing even rarer). Of course it’s hard to take part in a movement that must grow to succeed and yet avoid doing it in a high-profile way. Some don’t. Some broadcast their war tax resistance far and wide. Others keep it to themselves. But we should know they are there and consider their silent example all the same. Some clearly resist taxes for their own personal peace of mind, not caring who else knows. That can be seen as self-indulgent, but if more people’s minds required such actions we’d all be better off.
Some tax resisters are willing to devote significant hours to dealing with the IRS. Others actually enjoy that ordeal. And in some cases the results include terrific stories of how IRS employees are won over to the cause. Other war tax resisters avoid devoting much time to it. Some ignore the IRS but move any money from their PayPal account to their bank account every day and withdraw everything from their bank account every day.
War tax resisters have little in common with tax cheats. They openly tell the government what income they have and what they own. But some of them go to great efforts to keep the government from getting its fingers on what they own.
There are risks in war tax resistance. There is a risk of owing taxes plus penalties. If you don’t file, there is a risk of the IRS inventing higher income for you than you actually had. But if you file and refuse to pay, some ten years later that debt disappears. And most war tax resisters simply never pay for war and never suffer for taking that stand.
Even so, there are deeper problems to consider. While our taxes go to wars and militarism and the criminalization of drugs and warrantless spying and police brutality and highways and prisons and pro-fracking “regulators,” and so forth, our taxes also go to many good worthwhile enterprises. When we defund the government we defund the good with the bad. We can’t recreate the efficiency of scale found in Medicare by funneling our withheld tax dollars into local health clinics. We can’t as easily support the sense of collective public purpose that holds a society together while opposing taxation. We can’t properly respond to anti-abortion tax resisters or anti-public-education tax resisters or corporate tax cheats while opposing taxation. If we don’t massively increase taxes on billionaires and defund the military, our future is bleak. One of those two necessary changes won’t work without the other. But it gets harder to talk about taxing billionaires while opposing taxation, even if we’re just opposing taxation as it exists right now, even if we’re paying our state and local and payroll taxes and only resisting federal income tax.
Despite all of those reservations, I think war tax resistance is a critical part of building the movement of mass resistance of various forms that we need right now. I encourage everyone to carefully consider it, and to consider being part of a support community for those engaged in it, whether or not you engage in it yourself. Movements are growing to resist home foreclosures and to resist the repayment of student loans. Resistance of war taxes — of this machine that eats half of federal discretionary spending every year while funneling our money to those who already have too much — should be an integral part of a broader movement of resistance to financial injustice. Those who’ve been doing it for decades have much to teach.