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A Case for Not Paying Your Taxes in Protest

You should probably pay your taxes, but we talked to some war resisters who don’t.

If you feel like we live in vexing times, you're not alone. The villainy and buffoonery of the Trump administration has prompted widespread protests and cries for justice, with hostile responses toward any moves of disruption. As the chatter of the public sphere grows increasingly vicious, finding ways to act on one's convictions can be dizzying and daunting.

Not everyone feels comfortable with physical protest and for those crowd-resistant few, one time-honoured but often overlooked tactic of dissent is non-compliance—specifically, the refusal to financially support war and oppression. The military-industrial complex can only be halted, the thinking goes, by cutting off the fuel that keeps it chugging: taxes.

Not paying taxes as a genuine act of protest isn't the same as rejecting the very premise of income tax—on those grounds, even the mighty Wesley Snipes couldn't outwit the taxman. Inherent to democracy is a degree of consensus—we don't each get to dictate customized terms in return for our dues, even with the dopey notion, popular among hucksters like Trump or Conservative aspirant Kevin O'Leary, that a country should be run like a business. We can object if our hard-earned buck supports efforts counter to our basic beliefs.

In Canada, income tax represents a huge share of the federal government's revenue: 48.1 percent in 2015. The Liberals will deliver the next budget tomorrow, promising military spending at current or increased levels. With the Trump presidency in mind, and Justin Trudeau's apparent desires to maintain tight camaraderie with Washington, you could argue peace is low on the government's list of priorities.

Henry David Thoreau, off-the-grid weirdo, once argued the merits of non-participation in an unjust system: "If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth." Thoreau's ideas would inspire practitioners of civil disobedience from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, who contended "noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good."

The idea of tax resistance runs the length of the political spectrum, from proto-pinko Karl Marx ("refusal to pay taxes is the primary duty of the citizen") to anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard ("taxation is theft, purely and simply"). Modern resistance movements in Canada emerged in response to 1917's introduction of conscription. Waves of young men, many from pacifist religious groups like the Quakers and Mennonites, registered as conscientious objectors, refusing to fight on ideological grounds. Later, Vietnam War protests and nuclear disarmament movements further popularized noncooperation via tax refusal. Now, a reappraisal of taxes' function in democratic society might be close, as Donald Trump's refusal to release his own tax returns has led to upcoming marches calling out his hypocrisy.

In practice, tax resistance is a thorny proposition. Many who might be keen to join a street protest or sign a petition would still be skittish standing up to the feds when it comes to their taxes. The methods vary, from including a stern letter with your return, or intentionally keeping your income below taxable limits, to outright refusing to file. But Canada's Income Tax Act makes no concessions for ideology, and the bean-counters at the CRA are unlikely to play it loose with the numbers—in their eyes, if you don't file your taxes, it's considered fraud or evasion, and you could wind up in court.

That's what happened to Donald Woodside, a longtime member of Conscience Canada, which uses the rationale of conscientious objection as its basis for resistance. Woodside refused to pay taxes for years, most often by including a notice of objection with his return, calculating a percentage representing defense spending (typically, eight or nine percent) and directing that amount to a Peace Tax Fund established by Conscience Canada. The government wasn't so cool with this, and garnished Woodside's earnings and, eventually, his pension. "They had unlimited powers to seize money," he says, "but there's no fraud involved. I told them, when you promise to spend it on peaceful purposes, you can have it."

Woodside appealed his case, leading to a 1992 hearing that found against him. Now retired, he regards his practice of resistance as a constitutional effort, rather than representing any particular political affiliation.

Sam Koplinka-Loehr, Philadelphia-based organizer with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, does see tax resistance as explicitly political, and an integral tool in challenging oppression. "Whether you're looking at police violence right now, with thousands murdered by police forces across the country, or the US military killing hundreds of thousands overseas in the name of 'combatting terrorism,' across the board, we're facing a lot of challenges. And we don't have a lot of time."

Koplinka-Loehr sees any questioning of resisters' patriotism as ironic. "Our country was founded on a refusal to participate. What was the Boston Tea Party, if not a refusal to participate in an unjust system of taxation? The true patriot works for justice and to build a better community, and not follow ignorantly when a government is doing wrong."

But is withholding tax a viable strategy of sticking it to the man, or a futile gesture against a monolithic machine? On a purely pragmatic level, admits Donald Woodside, tax resistance is a symbolic act. "It's not going to reduce the amount spent on war or the military, because the government decides how much to spend and takes it out of a consolidated revenue fund. This does not affect that."

Ruth Benn, another coordinator with the NWTRCC, sees it slightly differently. "I don't think it's entirely symbolic. I believe we can force change by masses putting their money where their mouths are." Resources for programs like health care exist, she says, but remain tied up in spending on the military or related agencies, like Homeland Security or Customs and Border Protection. In her view, non-compliance sends a direct message of what we expect from the government. And the government notices, she argues, citing former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's alleged remark following 1982's massive anti-nukes protest in Central Park: "Let them march all they want, as long as they pay their taxes."

Jail time or property seizure for resistance is rare—by the NWTRCC's estimate, fewer than a hundred individuals have faced such consequences. One thing these resisters agree on is: If you kick up a stink at tax time, prepare to be pestered by the authorities. Such hassles, however, come with the territory of creating that "necessary friction." After all, Thoreau himself served time in a Concord prison for refusing to pay the poll tax—only one night, but hey, even a symbolic victory is still a victory. Mass protest movements thrive on this principle: one isolated action might accomplish little, but in aggregate can accomplish great things.

Smashing the system isn't easy, and fundamentally entails a degree of personal risk. Woodside, having seen his own battle go to the courts, acknowledges it's a scary prospect. "The most important antidote to that fear is one's own conscience, in the sense of objecting to the war machine, and the strength of your commitment."

So: if you're looking for an alternative method of dissent, you could try not paying your taxes. But be prepared to accept the consequences. And be more Thoreau than Snipes.

Follow Rob Benvie on Twitter.