Confronting the System Through Taxation

Confronting the System Through Taxation

IRS 1040 forms at a post office, April 14, 2011. (Photo: Steven Depolo)

Each year, unknown thousands of law-abiding American citizens refuse to pay taxes, driven by an ethical compunction not to pay for war. Nailing down the exact number of war tax resisters is difficult – as one resister explains, “we tend not to cooperate with those sorts of endeavors” – but it is just as difficult to know how much of each tax dollar goes to the military.

Even progressive organizations devoted to public education do not agree on how much of each tax dollar goes to war. The National Priorities Project shows 27 cents of every tax dollar paying for war, while the National War Tax Resisters Coordinating Committee shows 30 cents paying for current wars and 18 cents paying for past wars. Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee in New England Dr. Joseph Gerson calculates nearly 60 cents of each 2010 tax dollar “will pay for our present and future wars.”

War tax resister David G. asks: “Why should I have to pay for these criminal wars anyway?”

He adds, “If I choose not to pay why should that affect my desire for a peaceful life and my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? After all, that's defined in our Bill of Rights and guaranteed by our Constitution.”

Looking for a way “not to go along with what I think is the criminal enterprises that we as a country do in other countries using our foreign policy,” David G. reorganized his life, cut back his work hours and adjusted to reduced take-home pay.

“Now, even without the tax considerations, I like my simpler life without a stressful job and big bucks.”

Instead of driving a car, he takes public transportation or rides his bike. Instead of eating out at expensive restaurants, he learned to cook. Unexpected benefits emerged: more time and energy for exploring neighborhood grocery stores, learning about ethnic ingredients and how to cook them and meeting people he never had the opportunity to meet when he worked long hours.

He found that scaling down didn't mean living in poverty. “A common misconception about tax resisters is that we live at or below the poverty line. If we do that it is because we choose to, not because that's the only alternative. I have created a life rich in family and friends and I have the time to enjoy them and to engage in local groups and communities.”

The question for anybody considering tax resistance is: should I resist covertly or overtly?

To Confront or Not to Confront – That Is the Question

Overt confrontations with the system are conscious acts of civil disobedience in which a resister understands the risks and potential consequences and takes the opportunity to engage with and confront the system directly: “Here's what you say I owe and here's why I say I do not owe it … “

Many resisters who choose overt confrontation design their lives to reduce their vulnerability to government intrusion. Some decide not to own property or they use available laws – such as land trusts – to protect any property from IRS liens or appropriation.

Susan Q. has paid little or no federal taxes since her first job more than 25 years ago. “I decided that I wasn't going to work at cross purposes with my ethical commitments. That meant that, if they came after my salary, I would leave a job. I've only had to do that once. I choose not to own anything so I live in community with family, friends and other people and make myself vulnerable to them instead of to the government. Sure, this has its pros and cons but I live a very wonderful and comfortable life.”

Resistance methodologies can change over time as a resisters' life circumstances change. Elizabeth B. protested war by sending letters to her representatives, marching in the streets and signing petitions.

“But,” she says, “the government doesn't care how much we march in the streets, etc. as long as we pay taxes.”

So, at the start of the so-called War on Terror, she settled on a method that suited her ethics, religious beliefs and her pocketbook: paying a percentage of the amount the IRS claims she owes. Then she sends a cover letter along with her check explaining, “Sorry folks, I am not paying all you say I owe. I am a good citizen … and one of the roles of citizens of a democracy is to tell our government when we think they are making a mistake.”

This is Elizabeth's second round of tax resistance. For years, she had refused to pay the 79-cent hidden war tax tacked onto every Californian telephone user's phone bill that supported the US war effort in Vietnam. She had heard from other war tax resisters that the IRS probably would not come after her for such a small amount of money. But, after several years, they did come after her – for an amount less than $50 plus penalties and interest – and put a lien on her house. As a single mother raising four children, Elizabeth would not risk losing her family's home so she paid up.

Fear is a strong motivator … and it is built into a system that intimidates by anonymity, apparently conflicting and arcane rules and regulations and a “take-no-prisoners” reputation.

A Fear Based System

Confronting a monolithic system like the IRS takes courage. But, as Susan Q. states, “It can be very disempowering to get up each morning to news of terrible things being done with the fruits of our labor. We [working people] are out there trying to survive while resources are being taken from us to do harm both to us and to those in faraway lands. When we take a stand against that it feels really good.”

Susan goes on to describe how Americans, she believes, tend to “let our fears get the best of us.” We are not, however, facing the fear of bombs raining down on us but, as war tax resisters, “we're facing the fear of a letter … or perhaps an angry knock on our door. This fear is not life-threatening yet we respond as if it is. What is life-threatening is what's being done with our money. The rundown condition of many neighborhoods across our nation is a direct result of money taken out of our local economies and sent off for war. When you come down to it, the risks [of confronting the IRS] are not that big.”

Susan Q. concludes that the IRS “Spends a lot of energy scaring people with threats of all the terrible things that will happen … you'll lose your house … you'll land in federal prison … but what they really want is to get your money. At what point do you continue to resist or say, 'Okay, let's work out an Offer of Compromise or something like that'?”

Susan explains that human individuals really do maintain a lot more control than the IRS wants us to believe. “It is not that you won't feel fear but that you can put fear into perspective and make the choice, if possible, to stand up to them and maintain your ethics while doing that.”

A Method for Every Non-Taxpayer

There are many different ways to resist and people choose their method based upon their life considerations.

Some use the W4 form and take the maximum allowances … or fill out the paperwork and declare themselves tax exempt.

Some – and this method works well for 1099 independent contractors – eliminate withholding at the employment level then, at the end of they tax year, choose to file – or not – and an amount to pay.

Some pay a symbolic amount and withhold the amount they believe goes to pay for war and divert it to a chosen charity or not-for-profit organization.

Some earn only enough to stay below the federal tax limit (in 2011 it was set at $22,350 per year for a family of four).

Some use all the loopholes available through tax laws although with far less success than corporations. Considered a “legal person,” General Electric (GE) is the latest in a long line of corporations benefiting from this designation. According to ABC News, GE “earned $14.2 billion in profits in 2010, but paid not a penny in taxes because the bulk of those profits, some $9 billion, went offshore. [Moreover] GE got a $3.2 billion tax benefit.”

Struggling Americans who will file taxes may be further outraged to know that, while GE employs more than half its workforce outside the United States, closed 20 US factories between 2007 and 2009 and laid off 21,000 American workers, President Obama takes advice on job creation from GE's CEO Immelt.

Confronting monolithic systems like war and taxes takes endurance and courage. Everyday, thousands among us pursue life, liberty and happiness doing just that.