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Why Pay Taxes?
Published on Monday, April 3, 2006 by WorkingForChange
Why Pay Taxes?
You can't decide how government spends your money, but you can choose not to send it
by Geov Parrish
Each year about this time, as many of us supplement our paycheck-to-paycheck giving unto Caesar, I raise this question. This year, let's start with the following observation from a reader, sent in the wake of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He notes that "terrorism" is defined, in Webster's, as "the systematic use of terror, esp. as a means of coercion," and provides a long list of examples, past and present, where the U.S. government has done exactly that. He then notes that under the current Patriot Act, it is now illegal to provide money to organizations that practice terrorism, and therefore concludes that as a matter of national security he must refuse to pay his federal taxes.

Now, it's unlikely that any IRS or federal court will agree with that novel conclusion, but our reader has a point. Why do we continue to willingly pay for programs and policies that put ourselves and our country (not to mention countless people in other lands) in greater danger? The bloodshed and corporate welfare in our name and with our money -- and our kids' money, and their kids', and their kids' -- raises an obvious but seldom-asked question: why do so many of us pay our income taxes?

It's not a rhetorical question, with the obvious answer: "Because they make us." At the local, state, and especially federal level, we now have a political system where low, middle, and even upper middle income people get far less back in services and benefits from the federal government than we pay in. Meanwhile, the extremely wealthy -- the top one percent -- get far more. Military spending, non-military corporate welfare, and interest on the national debt alone accounts for more than 60 percent of the discretionary part of the federal budget each year. Public opinion surveys consistently reveal preferences for spending less on the military and more on social programs. The schism between public opinion polls and the leadership of both major parties regarding what to do in Iraq is an obvious example. Meanwhile, as we've seen this year, programs for the poor and needy are always the first to be cut.

The impact of how this money is and isn't spent is even greater when considering how much money isn't in the budget in the first place because of what the rich don't pay. Corporations and high-income folks are getting more tax breaks each year, while already-inadequate social spending continues to be gutted and more and more prisons get built to hold the people who can't cope.

The very rich are getting richer while many of our wages have been stagnant or dropping for years. Governments -- whose office holders are funded largely by the wealthy, in both parties -- are one of the primary mechanisms for this wealth transfer. The rich get richer, and a relatively tiny portion of their proceeds are then reinvested into purchasing politicians and policies to ensure an even more beneficial tax, legal, and regulatory structure. The ordinary U.S. citizen today has little meaningful choice or input in almost any important public policy issue at the state level, and none at all nationally.

So why do so many of us pay our taxes?

Two hundred thirty or so years ago, this was called "taxation without representation" and we threw out the government. Today, we vent our frustration by laughing along with the Tax Day jokes on late-night TV, or going further into debt at the Tax Day sales at our local mall -- "revolutions" are something bad people do.

But what if we refused? The federal government in particular is vulnerable; the income tax system is based on voluntary compliance (meaning the feds rely on us to arrange for our own payments, as opposed, to, say, sales taxes that rely on vendors for collection). The IRS -- though fearsome in its media-assisted reputation -- is essentially a very large, and not always very efficient, collection agency. People laugh off collection agency bills simply because they don't want to (or can't) pay, but quake in terror of the IRS when the money isn't just going to a private business -- it's going, in large quantities, to an institution now dedicated at the highest levels to enriching its patrons even if it means killing you. We are volunteering to buy the bullets for our firing squads.

Why does virtually everybody volunteer?

This isn't a Freemen or Posse Comitatus-type question of the legitimacy of taxation. Quite the opposite; it's specifically because portions of everyone's labor should contribute to the collective well-being of the community (rather than, say, Halliburton's net worth) that our current tax system is ethically bankrupt. The issue here is where the money is going, how it's being spent, and how the spending decisions are made. People struggling to pay the rent, who can't afford health care, have no job security or retirement prospects, can't find affordable daycare, college, or anything in between for their kids, and so on, are tithing 30 percent or more of our income to people who often pay little or nothing, reap a disproportionate share of public benefits, and already have enough yachts and private luxury jets to get by.

There are a few folks saying no. War tax resisters, refusing, for reasons of conscientious objection, to fund militarism, and often redirecting their money to socially useful programs instead, have been painfully aware for years of how much of our tax money goes to killing. Others refuse for libertarian reasons. A larger number choose to live under the taxable income, and still more folks, when forced to choose between enough food to feed the family in April and paying the IRS bill, make the eminently political decision to forego hunger. As usual this year, there will be small groups of folks leafleting or protesting at post offices around the country. You'd think there'd be millions.

Resisting taxes has risks. It can be done symbolically, withholding a small amount here or there; it can be done with an expectation of ultimately paying more in interest and penalties, the extra cost of refusing to cooperate willingly; or it can require major life changes to find tax-free employment and become uncollectable. It can be a nuisance, or it can complicate one's life immensely, or it can force a complete reexamination of why we work and where we want our time and labor to go.

Nobody should undertake tax resistance without understanding the risks. But there's also risks involved in passively cooperating with our own fleecing, or our own demise. And it's simply amazing that more of us don't look closely at which risk is greater.

For resources and counseling on tax resistance for reasons of conscientious objection to military spending, contact the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee at 1-800-269-7464, or

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. He can be reached by email at -- please indicate whether your comments may be used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming "letters" column.

© 2006 Working Assets


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