Refuse to Buy Products that Support Government

I covered strikes, including consumer strikes, being used to supplement tax resistance campaigns. Today I’m going to cover a specific variety of consumer strike — a strike against goods sold by the government or by a government-protected monopoly, or goods that are subject to a particular tax. Here are some examples:

  • As internet telephony started to become a real option several years ago, some American war tax resisters realized they could avoid the federal excise tax on telephone service by getting rid of their phone lines and switching over to such internet-based plans.
  • In , as the U.S. was launching its attack on Iraq, anti-war activists from other countries began to promote a boycott of the products of U.S. government contractors, and even of U.S. companies in general. “The U.S. economy is strung out across the globe,” wrote Arundhati Roy. “Its economic outposts are exposed and vulnerable. Our strategy must be to isolate Empire’s working parts and disable them one by one. No target is too small. No victory too insignificant.”
  • When the Continental Congress imposed a tax on postage stamps to help pay for the revolutionary war effort, Quaker James Mott decided to stop using the mail. He wrote to a friend:

    Must our correspondence by mail be at end, in consequence of the extra postage? or shall we pay it, and thereby contribute a mite to the support of measures calculated to destroy men’s lives and property? Perhaps I may be alone in refusing to pay postage on letters. Only a few cents — what can this do, it may be said, towards enabling government to prosecute the war? Very little, I own: but the great sum required is made up of littles; and if all those littles are withheld, the effusion of human blood may be at an end. … I cannot… believe it best for me to pay the present demand of additional postage, little as it is, and alone as I may stand.

    Many years later, Congress issued revenue stamps that had to be purchased and applied to certain types of documents. One Quaker wrote in :

    I am one of those (I suppose there are others), who have felt an extreme unwillingness to help maintain our wars by the use of the revenue stamps, which were legalized expressly for war uses. Our forefathers would have made an emphatic protest against it, if indeed they would not have refused entirely to use the stamps, and borne the consequences, whatever they might have been. … at least we could restrict the use of checks (for example) wherever possible, and diminish in this way our contributions to the war fund.

  • Other Quakers began refusing to use or to deal in imported goods, so as to avoid paying import duties that were being directed to military expenses. Joshua Evans wrote:

    About , I understood a law was made for raising money to defray the expenses of war, by means of a duty laid on imported articles of almost every kind. … I had felt myself restrained, for thirty or forty years, from paying such taxes; the proceeds whereof were applied, in great measure, to defray expenses relating to war: and, as herein before-mentioned, my refusal was from a tender conscientious care to keep clear in my testimony against all warlike proceedings.

    Quaker shopkeeper Isaac Martin decided to stop dealing in imported goods rather than pay an import duty:

    [A] weighty concern attended my mind on account of a tax on shop keepers, who dealt in foreign articles, to be appropriated towards carrying on the war against England. I felt much scrupulous in my mind, respecting the consistency thereof with our peaceable principles. … I believed my peace of mind would be affected, if I paid the said tax. So I resigned myself to the Lord’s will, let the event be as it may. But scarcely a day passed, that I had not to turn customers away, who applied for articles which I had on hand, but could not sell, on account of the heavy penalty.

  • Quaker meetings also had a policy of warning their members against “sharing or partaking in the spoils of war by purchasing or selling prize-goods” — that is, goods seized from the ships of enemy nations by government-sanctioned pirates.
  • Government bonds are an obvious boycott target for people trying to restrict the resources available to the government. John Payne wrote a tract in entreating Quakers to divest from government bonds that went to pay for wars:

    [T]he King [once] had the power of summoning the barons to the field, and the barons their retainers: by these means armies were raised, fields fought, and blood-stained laurels acquired. But now immense sums are wanted; and without them War would be an impossibility. The magnitude of the money necessary, infinitely exceeds any resource which the kingdom can immediately supply: therefore the ingenuity of ministers has recourse to the aid of Funding; that is, of establishing a fictitious capital, which shall bear a certain rate of interest; and any person, purchasing of Government a portion of this fictitious capital, is put into the receipt of interest according to the sum he purchases, and the country is burthened with taxes to support the payment of such interest.

    No man hazards his veracity by saying that War cannot be now supported without the Funding System. As no man then can deny this solemn truth, is it not astonishing to find Quakers holders of stock, not only in their individual, but in their collective capacity? What then is the conclusion? The Quakers, at the time they declare their fundamental principles prohibit War, are actively and voluntarily supplying the only prop by which the modern system of War is supported.

    Payne himself went even further. Eager to avoid as much as possible paying money to the British government that was fighting the American revolutionary war, he bricked up a third of the windows of his home to reduce his property tax (which was assessed based on the number of windows), he disabled his coach to avoid its license fee, and he rode miles out of his way to avoid road tolls.
  • Upset at the government siphoning off a portion of pew rents in establishment churches “to relieve the embarrassments in the city finances, occasioned by an extravagant self-elected magistracy,” some people in Edinburgh around the time of the Annuity Tax resistance there proposed also refusing to rent pews until government spending were to become more responsible.
  • The “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement aims to boycott businesses that profit from Israeli settlement expansion in occupied Palestine.
  • The “Potato Movement” in Greece is trying to circumvent the over-taxed middle-men of the above-ground commercial market by directly connecting producers and buyers in a way that is mutually-beneficial to them and less profitable to the state.
  • The British government’s enforced monopoly on tea imports into the American colonies was “equal to a tax” in the eyes of Samuel Adams and his fellow patriots. Boycotts of monopoly tea were widespread, and were famously backed up by acts like the Boston Tea Party, in which monopoly tea was destroyed in bulk. Other monopoly British imports that suffered from American boycott included house paint, cloth, glass, paper, and dye. One patriotic song included the lyric:

    The use of the taxables, let us forbear:—
    (Then merchants import till your stores are all full,
    May the buyers be few, and your traffic be dull!)

  • Boycotts of British-monopoly goods like salt were also, of course, big parts of the Indian independence campaign led by Gandhi.
  • During the tax resistance and protests that accompanied the campaign for the Reform Act of , “associations were proposed of persons who would undertake to use no excisable articles.”
  • In Russia around the time of the Vyborg Manifesto, a report noted that “the peasants are deciding to boycott all state-owned businesses.” For example: “they have undertaken a concerted abstention from vodka, the manufacture and sale of which intoxicant was made a Government monopoly… [which] has since constituted one of the principal sources of the public revenue.” Another report said that “[t]he leaders of the workingmen’s organization have taken the lead in placing fresh obstacles in the way of the government raising money at home by advising their followers to refuse to use spirits upon which the government collects an enormous tax.”
  • In the Vietnam era, “[o]ne pacifist, imprisoned for draft refusal and therefore lacking income to refuse taxes on, gave up smoking because the cigarette tax brings the [U.S.] government more revenue than any other single consumer-commodity tax.”

Another possibility is to obstruct the sale of such goods:

  • In Wales, truckers blockaded a Chevron refinery and called upon the tanker operators to join them in shutting it down, to protest the government’s tax on fuel.
  • Farmers in Argentina decided in to “halt sales of grains and livestock for a week, setting up roadblocks and hampering exports to press for lower taxes.”
  • In Greece, recently, resisters to taxes that were added to utility bills have barricaded the offices of utility companies.