Conservatives like to think of April 15—Tax Day—as the date when hard-working citizens hand over half their paychecks to the federal government so it can buy hard drugs and an HD television for every deadbeat in America. Liberals believe something similar—that taxes redistribute income from the rich and powerful to everyone else—which helps assuage their guilt over calling the cops last Christmas on the homeless man outside their condo. Reality is less convenient for either faction: The vast majority of income taxes collected by the federal government isn't going to the poor at all—unless prison now counts as public housing—but to a military that enjoys a budget just about equal to what the rest of the world spends on guns and bombs combined.
It's enough to make you want to stop paying income taxes altogether.
Corporations, the only legal persons who seem to doing well these days, don't consider it their civic duty to contribute to the federal government. Offshore tax shelters and creative accounting practices have helped 57 of the top 500 companies in the United States pay an effective tax rate of zero. And that makes the rest of us look like suckers. If the planet's wealthiest corporations aren't paying their taxes, why should a short-order cook at Denny's?
To be sure, taxes in the US are not as high as they are in Sweden or France, but the average American also gets far less for his tax dollar: In Western Europe, national health care means free trips to the doctor, not a mandate to buy private insurance, while America's priorities are such that more income tax revenue goes to the Pentagon than any other government program. (The things people in need actually benefit from, like Social Security and Medicare, are funded largely by other taxes.) Factor in the cost of caring for veterans and paying interest on all that debt racked up from a century of almost constant war, and you'll find that close to half of the money collected from federal income tax is devoted to covering the expense of armed conflict in one way or another.
If you don't like that, you should know by now that voting for change hasn't changed much of anything, with Barack Obama, the only sitting president to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, proposing a record-breaking military budget the year after he won it.
Refusing to give your money to a government that can literally print money might not change things in the short term. But war-tax resisters, as people who refuse to pay federal income taxes as a form of protest are known, have decided they have no choice in the matter: They can’t in good conscience financially support a system that spends billions of dollars on machines of death while millions of people go hungry, and they don't believe a politician's failure to act takes away their own responsibility to do whatever they can.
“I wouldn't kill another person myself—and to pay someone else to kill people in my name with my tax dollars, it's essentially the same thing,” said David Hartsough, a Quaker peace activist in his 70s. “I don't have to look at the blood,” he told me over the phone, “but the blood is on my hands.”
Speaking from his home in Northern California, Hartsough said he has been resisting federal taxes since the war in Vietnam. For a long time, he purposely earned so little money he simply didn't owe any taxes, the most popular (and most legal) form of tax resistance. After getting married and having kids, he was earning enough that he started getting a bill from the government; these days, he pays half that bill, explaining in an attached letter to the IRS that he wants the half he does pay to go toward the Department of Health and Human Services, not all that killing stuff.
Often, Hartsough never hears back, though sometimes he gets a form letter from the IRS stating, gosh, it sure would be nice if he paid all his taxes, which he probably just forgot about. Some years the IRS gets a little nastier and takes the money from one of his bank accounts; some years it doesn't.
Of course, the taxes one pays without a fight will go into the same pot as the money the IRS takes by force, letter or not. Hartsough knows that his civil disobedience alone won't make a dent in a trillion-dollar war machine, but that's sort of beside the point: He wants it to be known he doesn't support this system—that he doesn't want any blood on his hands. And besides, if we’re ever going to get to a point where there are enough people resisting that it can make a difference, someone has to go first.
“Even if there's just one of us or ten of us or a thousand or a million, we have to live by the highest truth that we understand,” said Hartsough. “It's an act of personal witness, but if enough people did this we could stop the war machine in this country. Instead of waiting until everyone else does something you feel is right, you have a responsibility to set an example.”
Hartsough still pays his state and local taxes, because, while state and local governments may now have SWAT teams with tanks, they do not yet have armed Predator drones—and you do have to pick your battles. He doesn’t just pocket the money he refuses to pay the IRS, either; he deposits it in an escrow account called the People's Life Fund, one of the many ways a tax resister can put his money toward a good cause while keeping open the option of taking it back should those letters from the government become sufficiently threatening. Tax resisters can either donate their money outright to the People’s Life Fund or let it sit there in case the IRS comes knocking; the interest earned by the account goes toward charitable causes in the Bay Area—about $10,000 to $20,000 a year, according to Susan Quinlan, who works with the fund.
“What it’s a testament to is that war-tax resisters are engaging in a conscious act of civil disobedience,” said Quinlan. “They are not trying to get away with something just to keep a little more money for themselves. They are really trying to make a point that we as a society could be doing a lot better things with this money than sending it off to Haliburton.”
Imagine if the tremendous resources devoted toward building the weapons of war were spent on, say, anything else. The US government is wealthy enough that it could make a serious dent in hunger and poverty across the globe if it focused on such things. Instead, it is set to spend $1.5 trillion on a fighter jet that may not even work while billions are cut from the food-stamp program.
It's no surprise, then, that many people are so fed up with a system that prioritizes bombing the poor over feeding them that they embrace tax resistance, unwilling to wait around for the change promised by a politician every two to four years. What’s surprising is how infrequently these war-tax resisters are actually bothered by the government. The state has a nasty bite, but it relies primarily on its bark: those form letters spit out by an IRS computer.
“I think we've been taught to really fear the IRS and the government and to feel that we have to comply, whether we believe in what it does with our taxes or not,” Quinlan told me. But the banal evil of bureaucracy in this case works in the tax resisters’ favor: Most of the time, the IRS will respond to a letter politely explaining one's refusal to bankroll evil with a collective, institutional shrug. If someone's open about what she’s doing and not just stashing her money in an offshore tax shelter, she won’t face prison time. And the privileged few with decent jobs in this post-job economy could see money from their bank account seized and their wages garnished—but even that’s not necessarily going to happen.
“They've never actually done anything,” Erica Weiland, a 30-year-old activist from Seattle, Washington, told me when I asked her about the consequences of her tax resistance. Weiland generally tries to avoid owing taxes in the first place, but when she does owe something, she files a return without paying a dime. And while she’s received a few letters, she’s never responded, nor had a problem. Freed from the burden of paying for broken fighter jets, she has been able to give money instead to those causes she believes in, which, she said, is “one of the things that's the most rewarding about being a war-tax resister.”
Weiland learned about tax resistance while working with the group Food Not Bombs, which helps feed the homeless in cities across the United States (at least where its activities are not banned). She met a war refugee from Sri Lanka who refused to accept anything more than room and board as payment for his labor, not wanting to contribute in any way to the sort of violence he witnessed firsthand—funded, in part, by the US government. If a poor immigrant could do it, Weiland decided she could too, and she hopes her actions will send a message that Americans are not as powerless as popularly imagined. “I want to show people that there's more that we can do to resist war and stop military actions than just marching and sending letters to Congress,” she said.
The point of an individual act of conscience, in other words, is not to make one feel better about oneself but to spur collective action—to get other people to do the same. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, either: By withholding just a few dollars a month, you could still have some effect, no matter how small. “If a million people resisted paying just a dollar, the government would notice,” said Ruth Benn of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.
This type of activism is nothing new, and the government has taken notice before. During the war in Vietnam, as many as 500,000 people engaged in war-tax resistance, with most simply refusing to a pay a nominal tax on their phone bill. While most got away with it, the IRS tried to set a lot of examples, in one case seizing and auctioning off someone’s car over an unpaid tax bill of $1.25.
That's a reminder that there are still risks associated with not paying one’s taxes, particularly if the government begins to fear those individual acts of civil disobedience could cascade into a broader rejection of civil authority. But even the truly risk-averse—those who like making more than a poverty wage but also live in fear of an audit—have an easy form of resistance available to them: not letting the government withhold taxes from their paycheck. This is just sound financial advice, actually. If you stop overpaying the IRS—which is what you are doing if you receive a refund—and instead stash your money away in a the lowest of low-interest savings account until you need it again on April 15, you will end up with more dead presidents in your pocket than if you had let the government just borrow that money for free.
Whatever you do, whichever amount of risk you choose to accept, at least consider something that Hartsough told me: “We all have a responsibility to listen to our own conscience, and if that lands us in jail or means economic hardship, that’s not as bad as the curse of having killed people.”
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by Al Jazeera, Inter Press Service, the New Inquiry, and Salon.
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Topics: income tax, taxes, US politics, war tax resisters, tax resisters, People’s Life Fund, Northern California, antiwar activists, peace activists, US military budget, National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, IRS, finance, David Hartsough