Benjamin Ricketson Tucker’s Tax Resistance

On I mentioned Benjamin Ricketson Tucker’s brief experiment with poll tax resistance. I’ve since tracked down a copy of a collection of Tucker’s writings — Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism — in which he addresses and justifies both his poll tax refusal and, later, his decision to confine himself to symbolic resistance of taxes (such as paying under protest).

The first of these comes from the pages of Liberty () in response to a letter-to-the-editor that asks Tucker whether by refusing to pay taxes he is wrongly violating an implicit contract that all citizens have with each other and with the State. His answer sums up the Anarchist dismissal of that old political philosophy trope that makes the State out to be the result of a contract agreed to by its subjects:

To the Editor of Liberty:

I have lately been involved in several discussions leading out of your refusal to pay your poll-tax, and I would like to get from you your reasons, so far as they are public property, for that action. It seems to me that any good object could have been better and more easily obtained by compromising with the law, except the object of propagandism, and that in attaining that object you were going beyond the right into paths where you could not bid any one follow who was trying to live square with the truth, so far as we may know it.

It seems to me that we owe our taxes to the State, whether we believe in it or not, so long as we remain within its borders, for the benefits which we willingly or unwillingly derive from it; that the only right course to be pursued is to leave any State whose laws we can no longer obey without violence to our own reason, and, if necessary, people a desert island for ourselves; for in staying in it and refusing to obey its authority, we are denying the right of others to combine on any system which they may deem right, and in trying to compel them to give up their contract, we are as far from right as they in trying to compel us to pay the taxes in which we do not believe.

I think that you neglect the grand race experience which has given us our present governments when you wage war upon them all, and that a compromise with existing circumstances is as much a part of the right as following our own reason, for the existent is the induction of the race, and so long as our individual reasons are not all concordant it is entitled to its share of consideration, and those who leave it out do, in so far, wrong.

Even granting strict individualism to be the ultimate goal of the race development, still you seem to me positively on a false path when you attempt — as your emphatic denial of all authority of existing government implies — to violently substitute the end of development for its beginning.

I think that these are my main points of objection, and hope that you will pardon my impertinence in addressing you, which did not come from any idle argumentative curiosity, but a genuine search for the truth, if it exists; and so I ventured to address you, as you by your action seem to me to accept the burden of proof in your contest with the existent.

 — Frederic A.C. Perrine

Mr. Perrine’s criticism is an entirely pertinent one, and of the sort that I like to answer, though in this instance circumstances have delayed the appearance of his letter. The gist of his position — in fact, the whole of his argument — is based on the assumption that the State is precisely the thing which the Anarchists say it is not — namely, a voluntary association of contracting individuals. Were it really such, I should have no quarrel with it, and I should admit the truth of Mr. Perrine’s remarks. For certainly such voluntary association would be entitled to enforce whatever regulations the contracting parties might agree upon within the limits of whatever territory, or divisions of territory, had been brought into the association by these parties as individual occupiers thereof, and no non-contracting party would have a right to enter or remain in this domain except upon such terms as the association might impose. But if, somewhere between these divisions of territory, had lived, prior to the formation of the association, some individual on his homestead, who for any reason, wise or foolish, had declined to join in forming the association, the contracting parties would have had no right to evict him, compel him to join, make him pay for any incidental benefits that he might derive from proximity to their association, or restrict him in the exercise of any previously-enjoyed right to prevent him from reaping these benefits. Now, voluntary association necessarily involving the right of secession, any seceding member would naturally fall back into the position and upon the rights of the individual above described, who refused to join at all. So much, then, for the attitude of the individual toward any voluntary association surrounding him, his support thereof evidently depending upon his approval or disapproval of its objects, his view of its efficiency in attaining them, and his estimate of the advantages and disadvantages involved in joining, seceding, or abstaining. But no individual today finds himself under any such circumstances. The States in the midst of which he lives cover all the ground there is, affording him no escape, and are not voluntary associations, but gigantic usurpations. There is not one of them which did not result from the agreement of a larger or smaller number of individuals, inspired sometimes no doubt by kindly, but oftener by malevolent, designs, to declare all the territory and persons within certain boundaries a nation which every one of these persons must support, and to whose will, expressed through its sovereign legislators and administrators no matter how chosen, every one of them must submit. Such an institution is sheer tyranny, and has no rights which any individual is bound to respect; on the contrary, every individual who understands his rights and values his liberties will do his best to overthrow it. I think it must now be plain to Mr. Perrine why I do not feel bound either to pay taxes or to emigrate. Whether I will pay them or not is another question — one of expediency. My object in refusing has been, as Mr. Perrine suggests, propagandism, and in the receipt of Mr. Perrine’s letter I find evidence of the adaptation of this policy to that end. Propagandism is the only motive that I can urge for isolated individual resistance to taxation. But out of propagandism by this and many other methods I expect there ultimately will develop the organization of a determined body of men and women who will effectively, though passively, resist taxation, not simply for propagandism, but to directly cripple their oppressors. This is the extent of the only “violent substitution of end for beginning” which I can plead guilty of advocating, and, if the end can “better and more easily obtained” in any other way, I should like to have it pointed out. The “grand race experience” which Mr. Perrine thinks I neglect is a very imposing phrase, on hearing which one is moved to lie down in prostrate submission; but whoever first chances to take a closer look will see that it is but one of those spooks of which Tak Tak* tells us. Nearly all the evils with which mankind was ever afflicted were products of this “grand race experience,” and I am not aware that any were ever abolished by showing it any unnecessary reverence. We will bow to it when we must; we will “compromise with existing circumstances” when we have to; but at all other times we will follow our reason and the plumb-line.


* “A writer for Liberty [James L. Walker] who has devoted much space to exposition of the philosophy of Egoism.”


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