Is Withholding the “Military Percentage” of Taxes Conscientious Objection?

Some war tax resisters resist in this way: They calculate how much federal income tax they owe, then they determine what percentage of income tax revenue the federal government spends on war, and then they hold back that percentage of their income tax while paying the rest.

This is a variety of protest that relies on symbolism and on the emphatic value of civil disobedience. But sometimes these resisters claim that what they are doing is not merely a protest but is a variety of conscientious objection — an attempt to practically withdraw support from immoral government policies, or to evade complicity with those policies.

Looked at in that way, the tactic they’ve chosen seems disconnected from the ends they claim to be pursuing. If they withhold 50% of their income tax, for instance, because they believe that that is the percentage of income tax revenue the federal government spends on the military, the remaining 50% that they do pay isn’t any less likely to be spent on the military or to expose the payer to any less complicity. The separation of the bad money they’ve held back from the good money they’ve sent in is only in their mind. It’d be like using half a can of orange paint to paint one chair, and half of it to paint another chair, and expecting to end up with a red chair and a yellow chair.

The people who practice this variety of war tax resistance aren’t idiots — they know that the government isn’t doling out each individual taxpayer’s tax dollars one-by-one with the Defense Department last in the queue (“sorry, General, but it looks like we’ve run out!”). And they’ll acknowledge this if you ask directly. But from time to time, many seem to forget that they’re engaged in a symbolic protest, and they deploy the rhetoric of conscientious objection to explain their position.

This was a particularly difficult problem with the Quaker war tax resisters I’ve been studying. The most typical Quaker war tax resistance position went something like this: We must refuse to pay any tax that is levied for the purpose of supporting war or the military, but we must cheerfully pay taxes for the support of civil government even when that government uses some of that tax money to fund a budget that includes military and war spending. Or, as “Philalethes” put it: “we ought not to ask Cæsar what he does with his dues or tribute, but pay it freely. But if he tells me it is for no other use but war and destruction, I’ll beg his pardon and say ‘my Master forbids it.’ ”

When resisters would deploy their most daunting rhetoric of conscience and pacifism to defend the first prong of this forked position, their critics would respond by wondering why such passionate reasoning wouldn’t apply equally well to the second. Attempts to answer this objection by asserting the harmlessness or blamelessness of paying a mixed tax would then threaten to undermine the force of the conscientious objection argument, which seemed to rely on a heartfelt refusal to be involved even indirectly in bloodshed. As one critic put it:

Why might they not as well resist the payment of a tax which goes to the support of the army or navy of the United States? If they have any conscientious scruples at all upon the subject, they must be carried out or they are good for nothing. What difference is there, in principle, between killing a fellow man in war and paying another man to kill him? And, again, do not the Friends pay one man to kill another when they pay their share of the general tax towards the support of the government and the means of national defense?

There came to be a hotly disputed science of discerning the difference between war taxes and “mixed” taxes, the former being ones that would trouble a good Quaker conscience to the extent of civil disobedience, but the latter being ordained and blessed by Jesus and the Apostles. The problem was that the nature of the difference between these taxes was difficult to pin down.

If the government raised taxes across the board as it was going to war and raising military spending to match, was this a war tax, or since it was just going into the general budget as before (although a higher percentage of this budget was being spent on war than usual) was it no less objectionable now than it had been before? What if the government, in the course of raising taxes, had explicitly said that the latest tax hike was for the war? Would that matter, and if so, how is it that your conscientious objection might be triggered by something of so little weight as a legislative preamble?

In many cases it was indeed the case that the words uttered while money changed hands were thought to be more important than the actual, practical transaction. Thus, for instance, the Pennsylvania Assembly would not fulfill requests of money for fortifications or other war expenses, but would respond to these requests by granting money “for the King/Queen’s use.” In this way, although the practical, real-world effect was the same, the Quaker consciences were spared. “We did not see it,” one said, “to be inconsistent with our principles to give the Queen money notwithstanding any use she might put it to, that not being our part but hers.”

But what of those militia exemption fines that Quakers so regularly refused to pay? These were fines that conscientious objectors (or, often, anyone with enough money and better ideas of how to spend his time) could pay in lieu of otherwise mandatory military service. Most of the writings about Quaker war tax resistance that I’ve collected are about resistance to these fines. But if the fines went into the general fund just like any other tax, as they sometimes did, on what ground could a Quaker object to the one and not the other?

In fact, the evolution of Quaker resistance to militia exemption taxes underwent an interesting shift over time from conscientious objection to a more confrontational civil disobedience.

At first, Quakers justified their resistance to these taxes by saying that they could neither bear arms nor pay a substitute to bear arms in their place, or that they could not pay a tax that was specifically designated for war purposes as this would mean actively participating in war.

But over time, this justification underwent a shift (one that was subtle enough that I have found no records that try explicitly to justify it). Quakers came to object to militia exemption taxes even when these taxes went into the government’s general fund, or even if they were specifically designated for humanitarian purposes that Quakers would not otherwise object to. They objected to these taxes, not because the taxes would make them participants in war but because, as the Meeting for Sufferings of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting put it in :

Believing that liberty of conscience is the gift of the Creator to man, Friends have ever refused to purchase the free exercise of it by the payment of any pecuniary or other commutation to any human authority.

This is a much more radical position. No longer was resistance to militia exemption taxes just a refusal to participate in the wars and fightings of the powers of the world; instead, it became a notice that those powers had overstepped their bounds when they pretended to regulate and tax conscientious scruples.

People trying to extract war money from Quakers occasionally tried to “hack” this odd protocol by which they could approve of “mixed” taxes in most circumstances. For instance, in when Benjamin Fletcher tried to get the Pennsylvania Assembly to cough up some money to fight the French & Indians, he wrote:

[I]f there be any amongst you that scruple the giving of money to support war, there are a great many other charges in that government, for the support thereof, as officers salaries and other charges, that amount to a considerable sum: Your money shall be converted to these uses, and shall not be dipped in blood.

You’ll recognize this as the same sort of promise held out by today’s proponents of the Peace Tax Fund Act: Give the government your money and in return the government pledges it will spend your money only on the good stuff and will spend someone else’s money on the stuff you don’t like.

It took some fortitude to look at mixed taxes and to say that the mixture of taxes for war with taxes for civil government didn’t wash the blood off the former but further bloodied the latter. The “epistle” of John Woolman and others to their fellow Friends introduced this position:

[T]hough some part of the money to be raised by the said Act is said to be for such benevolent purposes as supporting our friendship with our Indian neighbors and relieving the distresses of our fellow subjects… and we could most cheerfully contribute to those purposes if they were not so mixed that we cannot in the manner proposed show our hearty concurrence therewith without at the same time assenting to, or allowing ourselves in, practices which we apprehend contrary to the testimony which the Lord has given us to bear for his name and Truth’s sake.

Job Scott “believed a time would come, when Christians would not so far contribute to the encouragement and support of war and fightings as voluntarily to pay taxes that were mainly, or even in considerable proportion, for defraying the expenses thereof.” And Moses Brown worried that this might mean completely unraveling the distinction that allowed Quakers to think of themselves as both conscientiously objecting to supporting war, but also obeying the Biblical instructions to “render unto Caesar” and “pay ye tribute”:

[S]ome Friends refuse all taxes, even those for civil uses as well as those clear for war and others that are mixed, and thereby dropping our testimony of supporting civil government by readily contributing thereto, it has been a fear whether this variety of conduct won’t mar rather than promote the work. Could we be more united in the ground of our testimony and in our practice in it, I should have more hopes of its speedy obtaining in society. A time will doubtless come when a smaller proportion will be for war than at present when the greater part being for civil uses, friends may pay as there is and ought to be according to the apostle, a conscientiousness in paying to the support of civil government as well as refuse that for war…

Then he anticipates the “Peace Tax Fund” idea, or something like it:

…to refuse the payment of such when even a lesser part be mixed for war before we applied to the authority to separate them would not at present be my place, but probably before that time come when the lesser part will be for war friends may be agreed to ask a separation which, if it should be refused, we might be united in refusing even those the greater part of which may be for civil uses.

Joshua Maule sparred with other Friends about this issue. When the government added a war surtax to the regular tax bill, many Quakers were untroubled by paying it: although it bore the name of a war tax, it was collected in the same way as the general tax they’d been paying all along, and like that tax, it was deposited in the general fund and spent at the whim of the legislature. But Maule felt that by calling it a war surtax, the government had brought it into inevitable conflict with the Quaker conscience, and he lashed out at more accommodating Friends. “[T]hat [tax] for the war and bounty was not mixed with any other,” he wrote, “until those who paid it voluntarily mixed it themselves and thereby made it their own act to pay the price for men to go forth to the field of human slaughter.” The way Maule figured it:

[I]f I owe a just debt, I must pay it; if the person receiving the money uses it for a bad purpose, the accountability is with him; but if he demand money of me avowedly to be used in any way to the plundering of my neighbor, destroying his property, or taking his life, then if I furnish money thus demanded I become an accomplice in the evil work and accountable for the sin. I consider our civil taxes a just debt that should be promptly paid, but I am satisfied that no human authority has either a moral or a religious right to demand of me money or means of any kind to aid in destroying the lives and property of my fellow-men.

But note that Maule only refused to pay the surtax — that portion of his total tax that was “avowedly” being raised for war. Certainly, though, the government was “avowing,” with every budget, that it was going to be spending some portion of both the surtax and the regular tax on the very same things. And so those who disagreed with Maule shot back that he was playing plenty of money “to aid in destroying the lives and property of [his] fellow-men” and he knew it, so won’t he please give it a rest. Nathan Hall put it well when he wrote to Maule:

[W]hether we pay less or more of that tax, a certain proportion of it goes for military or war purposes; and it avails nothing to say: “We did not pay it for that purpose, and if wicked and bad men so apply it, it is their lookout, not ours.” We can say that of all the tax as well as a part.

If the law had said so many dollars to be raised for war purposes, instead of such a portion of each and every dollar, it would have been plain and not a mixed tax. Such is not the case; it is all collected together and thrown into one general treasury, where it remains till it is apportioned out for the different purposes designated by the law. There might be as many different classes of objectors or withholders of tax as there are purposes for which it is appropriated, and the officers of government know nothing of the nature or cause of any of them; they would only know there was a deficiency, and apply that on hand in due proportions for their different purposes, and the deficiency, when collected, in like manner. To illustrate it more fully I will suppose a case which I believe is strictly parallel, thus: We both have a testimony against the use of ardent spirits, but are, being very thirsty, placed in a situation where we can get no water except some that has a small portion of whiskey in it. Being under the necessity of taking something, you may, by inquiry and calculation, find what proportion of the objectionable article is contained in it, and leave just that much in your bowl; while my understanding will be that in partaking I partake of both good and bad, and in refusing refuse both. So that with me the question is and has been, not what portion I should pay so much as whether any at all.

When I was speaking at the Abundance League a while back about my tax resistance, one horrified liberal — alarmed at the enthusiasm those around her were showing for the stand I’d taken — launched into a defense of government spending on things like roads and general infrastructure. I thought what a shame it was that such valuable things as these had to be bought at such high prices from their monopoly supplier so as to support their “one Iraq war free with purchase” promotion deal.