War tax resistance is far from a new idea. But there is a bold initiative brewing that has an elegantly simple new angle: There is safety in numbers. The idea is to get people to sign a pledge that they will engage in civil disobedience by withholding a percentage of their taxes, but only if a critical mass of 100,000 signers is reached by April 15, 2008.
Activists have spent long hours pushing for election reform, marching in the streets, and engaging in other forms of civil disobedience against the Iraq war with seemingly no effect, so clearly a different tack is needed. The "I'll jump if you will" approach to war tax resistance just might work.
My friend Jodie Evans, cofounder of Code Pink, is one of those people who live on the barricades, sleep little, and dedicate most every waking moment to social change. Her material desires take a backseat to her convictions, and the ragged pink mules she has worn for years as part of her Code Pink identity are the laughingstock of her friends. She has been arrested more times than she can count and has been at the epicenter of many of the most effective and mediagenic progressive campaigns of the past several decades.
But Jodie is also at home in the most rarefied strata of power. Thanks in no small part to her, the pledge list will be seeded with participants from business, Hollywood, and other influential enclaves, and the initiative will be backed by a strong communications strategy.
War tax resistance dates back to the early 13th century, when King John of England raised taxes to pay for a war against France and offended many barons who objected to the war. Their fury led to the birth, in 1215, of the Magna Carta, which underpins U.S. constitutional law. Henry David Thoreau was the most famous U.S. war tax resister, and his essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" influenced Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and many others. During the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of citizens withheld payment of the 10 percent phone service excise tax that was instituted to pay for that war. Organizations like the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee have ongoing campaigns and considerable expertise in the how-tos of withholding taxes.
I know a man who has a passion for slashing taxes but a political agenda very different from mine, and I wanted to know what he thought of withholding income tax as an act of civil disobedience. He initially said that he was opposed to breaking even unjust laws and that his approach is to work the system. In his view, the income tax is unconstitutional and therefore an unjust law because it should have been ratified state by state, rather than introduced as the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. When I explained the critical mass approach to tax withholding, he cautioned me to beware of the law of unintended consequences. If this war tax resistance initiative is successful, he said, people like him could take the same approach to withholding taxes for social spending. I told him that it seems to me that spending on human needs and environmental protection is already eviscerated. "Well, then you have nothing to be afraid of," he said.
Salt Lake City mayor Ross "Rocky" Anderson recently made an impassioned speech in which he said, "I implore you: Draw a line. Figure out exactly where your own moral breaking point is. How much will you put up with before you say 'No more' and mean it?"
What do you say, Rocky? I'll sign on if you will.
Meanwhile, tonight Jodie Evans has, Cinderella-like, put on a gown and jewels for a gala gathering of high-tech titans. I have no doubt that when her glass slippers revert to pink mules, she will be clutching some high-octane names for the war tax resisters pledge list.
Stay tuned and sign on at www.dontbuybushswar.org.
Nina Rothschild Utne is editor at large of the Utne Reader.
Copyright 2007 Utne Reader