Some notes from the National War Tax Resistance Coördinating Committee conference:
The Patriot Act was big on the agenda of the conference . Steve Bingham of the National Lawyers Guild summed things up by saying in his introduction to the topic: “We have historically had a relatively high level of personal liberty in this country. This is no longer the case.”
What does that mean to activist groups, particularly those that, like NWTRCC, advocate civil disobedience? Well, it’s disturbingly easy to find yourself lumped into the legal category of “domestic terrorist organizations.” Once there, you’re fair game for a lot of government persecution that used to be considered a gross violation of inalienable rights.
So basically, any activist group runs the risk of being successful enough to actually be an obstacle to the government, and as Bingham said: “The minute your organization begins to be effective, they do have the tools and the power to do what it takes to stop you.”
But the news wasn’t all ominous and frightening. A lot of what went on at the conference was people telling their stories — how and when they became a tax resister, how they’ve chosen to do their tax resistance, and what sort of things have happened along the way.
Some folks have been at this for twenty or thirty years. And the varieties of tax resistance are many, including:
- Moral and Practical Support — This can include signing petitions in favor of tax resisters, contributing to their legal defense, helping to pay their fines and interest penalties if the IRS comes after them, attending in protest if their property is auctioned off, and that sort of thing.
- Peace Tax Fund Activism — Some people are trying to get a law passed that would create the equivalent to “conscientious objection” for taxpayers. Whereas conscientious objectors to the draft are drafted into positions that do not directly participate in killing, conscientious objectors to war taxes would pay their taxes into a special budget that is not used for war. I have my doubts, but some people are convinced that this is where it’s at.
- Pay Under Protest — This can range from simply attaching a letter to your 1040 explaining why you wish you weren’t paying taxes, to sending in a check the size and shape of a coffin lid, to paying your taxes in pennies.
- Phone Tax Resistance — Some people refuse to pay the federal excise tax on their phone bill. This was a “temporary” tax that started in to help finance the Spanish-American war, and, as so many temporary taxes do, became an immortal vampire. The advantage of resisting this tax, which is done simply by reducing the check you send to the phone company by a small fraction (and maybe including a letter of explanation), is that it’s easy to do and almost nobody’s ever gotten any grief from the IRS for it. The disadvantage is that it’s really just a tiny little symbolic act — like sticking out your tongue at the firing squad. Some phone companies, notably Working Assets Long Distance, accommodate tax resisters with their own process; for others it takes some work to convince them that you’re not just shorting them on their bill.
- Symbolic Resistance — This includes things like sending the IRS blank forms, or forms marked with zeroes, or torn up forms, or forms with officially unrecognized deductions, or hyperbolic claims of five billion dependents, or withholding $10.40 or $17.76 from the amount due — that sort of thing. The IRS has a new tool against these protesters — a $500 fine for filing a “frivolous” form.
- The “frivolous” form fine also applies to just about everybody who tries the Constitutional Argument approach. This includes arguments that the first amendment freedom of religion clause prohibits the government from forcing people to fund government projects that are contrary to their religious beliefs, that the fifth amendment protections against self-incrimination prohibit the IRS from demanding that people reveal the details of their financial lives, that the United States as a signatory to the United Nations and a prosecutor of the Nuremberg Principles is bound to respect people who cannot pay for violations of these principles, or that the constitutional amendment that gave us the income tax in the first place wasn’t ratified correctly. I like to call this the Bullwinkle (“that trick never works”) Method. But there was a fellow at the conference who’d been doing this for a few years.
- The Make-’em-take-it Method — Some people refuse to hand over their taxes voluntarily, but don’t try to hide their assets (or to avoid having any to hide). After a while, the IRS gets around to seizing their bank accounts, garnishing their wages, or auctioning off their property.
- Resisting the War Budget Only — Some people refuse to pay just that portion of their income tax that corresponds to the percentage of the federal budget dedicated to paying for wars (past, present and future). The War Resisters League estimates that 47% of your income tax pays for war.
- The Hide-the-Assets Method — There are all sorts of sneaky ways to make money and own stuff without the IRS being able to get their hands on it. Offshore tax havens and clever trusts aren’t just for the rich. And some people find a way to work for cash only and never report their income. Other folks just try to make sure that there’s nothing for the IRS to seize when they show up — by hiding their savings, having their assets held by other people or by trusts and other legal entities, etc.
- The Too-Poor-to-Tax Method — (That’s me.) A lot of people are going this route. This also has the advantage of lowering the excise taxes you pay (since, with less money, you’re spending less on gasoline, booze, ammunition, luxury cars, vaccines and stuff). Furthermore, it harmonizes with some people’s desire to have a smaller planetary “footprint.” One person at the conference said that according to her calculations, if everyone on earth used up resources at the rate that a fairly conscientious American like she did, we’d need three-and-a-half planets to provide for us all.
Some people who hold back taxes donate the money instead to charity; others set the money aside in an account to be used later if the IRS comes after them. Still others don’t want to have any fund that the IRS might have the opportunity to seize, and also don’t see any reason to change the amount of money they donate to charity based on what their 1040 would say.
People have different goals in mind when they start on their tax resistance also, and this affects which techniques they decide on. Some are doing tax resistance as a protest, and so it is important that the government (and perhaps the press and the general public) know that they’re resisting. Some others are hoping eventually to make tax resistance a mass movement that forces concessions from the government. Others are less interested in the protest aspect of it, or the possibility of changing the government’s actions by defunding it, and more interested simply in not being complicit in the government’s behavior.
At one point in the conference, someone suggested another possible technique: Far fewer low-income folk take the Earned Income Tax Credit than are eligible for it. Tax resisters could successfully take a lot of money out of the government’s budget simply by counselling people on how to take this credit. The IRS intends to make it more onerous to successfully apply for this credit , so such counselling is that much more important.
Over all I was very encouraged by the conference. It was a very friendly group of people with a positive outlook and a lot of experience to draw on.