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
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
It's not a rhetorical question, with the obvious answer: "Because they
make us." At the local, state, and especially federal level, we now
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
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
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
to, say, sales taxes that rely on vendors for collection). The IRS --
though fearsome in its media-assisted reputation -- is essentially a
large, and not always very efficient, collection agency. People laugh
off collection agency bills simply because they don't want to (or
pay, but quake in terror of the IRS when the money isn't just going to
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
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
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
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
find tax-free employment and become uncollectable. It can be a
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
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 email@example.com -- please indicate whether your comments may be used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming "letters" column.
© 2006 Working Assets