A Tax Resistance Campaign with No Leaders, No Organization? No Problem.

I’m not sure you could call this a tactic, exactly, but it’s worth mentioning that it is possible to have a quiet, leaderless tax strike that never forms an organization or runs a formal campaign, but is nonetheless powerful and successful.

Yale professor James C. Scott has made a career of studying this variety of leaderless, grassroots resistance — and he has noted in particular examples of tax resistance that follow this pattern. (See The Picket Line for .) Such “everyday resistance” has many advantages: it is harder for the government to combat, it builds its own momentum, and it promises an easy payoff without requiring much risk or responsibility. “[T]he peasantry’s most common and durable weapon,” Scott says, “is an everyday resistance that stops short of the more dangerous forms of overt protest and confrontation.”

Everyday resistance does not throw up the manifestos, demonstrations, or pitched battles that normally compel attention. It makes no headlines. But just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political and economic barrier reef of their own. There is rarely any dramatic confrontation, any movement that is particularly newsworthy. And whenever, to pursue the simile, the ship of state runs aground on such a reef, attention is typically directed to the shipwreck (for example, a fiscal crisis) itself and not to the vast aggregation of petty acts that made it possible.

  • In the French National Assembly threw in the towel and formally abolished a series of taxes that the people had informally eliminated by means of their refusal to pay — starting with “salt duties, internal customs-duties, taxes on leather, on oil, on starch, and the stamp of iron,” and then a year later including “octrois and entrance-dues in all the cities and boroughs of the kingdom, all the excise duties and those connected with the excise, especially all taxes which affect the manufacture, sale, or circulation of beverages.”
  • Some taxes are just so widely ignored and difficult to enforce that they become de facto abolished. American states that have a sales tax cannot enforce that sales tax on merchants from other states — so they try to enforce it as a “use tax” due from the purchaser. This means that anyone who orders something from a catalog or from an out-of-state vendor on the internet is supposed to keep careful track of how much they’ve spent on such things throughout the year and then write a check to their state government for their cut. In practice, almost nobody does this, and the tax might as well not be on the books at all, at least as it applies to the ordinary consumer.
  • When women in Pennsylvania won the vote and got taxed as a booby prize, many refused to pay. This happened all across the state, with thousands of women resisting, but without even any hints of formal organization that I been able to uncover. Nonetheless, it had the authorities thoroughly stymied.