War Tax Resisters Debate “Peace Tax Fund” Law

The most contentious item on the agenda at the NWTRCC national gathering was our organization’s relationship with the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act and with the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, a long-time affiliate of NWTRCC, which promotes the act.

This issue had come up at our last meeting in Eugene because the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund had asked us to formally endorse this legislation. We were unable to reach consensus on the endorsement at that meeting and didn’t allot enough time to really discuss the matter in detail, so we planned to readdress the issue and devote more time to discussion this time around.

One of the arguments in favor of us endorsing the bill was that in the NWTRCC “Statement of Purpose” is a section that many people interpreted as a built-in endorsement of the bill. That section reads:

NWTRCC’s goal is to maintain and build a national movement of conscientious objectors to military taxes by supporting, coordinating and publicizing the WTR actions of groups and individuals. These actions include: war tax resistance, protest, and refusal; the redirection of military taxes to meet human needs; support of the US Peace Tax Fund Bill; and adjustment of lifestyle to avoid tax liability.

I’ve heard many perspectives about whether this section endorses the bill or merely indicates that support for it is one of many war tax resistance related activities that our affiliate groups engage in. But in any case, the “US Peace Tax Fund Bill” doesn’t exist as an active piece of legislation anymore. The currently-proposed legislation is substantially different in content and has a new name. So this time around, in addition to debating the endorsement question, we were also trying to come up with a satisfactory way to remove or replace the anachronistic language from our statement of purpose.

On , we had a panel presentation on the bill followed by an open discussion. Bethany Criss, the executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, presented the case for why we should endorse. Ray Gingerich and I each gave statements opposing the endorsement. Ruth Benn shared some of her insights from being exposed to the variety of international peace tax fund campaigns (some of which are promoting legislation that differs in important ways from the U.S. bill) and also recounted some of the history of the close working relationship of NWTRCC and NCPTF. After these brief remarks from the panel, other attendees addressed the issue.

The following summary is based on notes I was taking at the time, so is only as good as my attention and note-taking were — caveat emptor:

Bethany Criss started out by noting the similarity between legalized conscientious objection to military service and conscientious objection to military taxation. She also tried to assuage concerns that the “Religious Freedom” part of the bill’s title meant that the provisions of the bill would not be available to non-religious objectors. She said that she felt confident that Congress would not raid the peace tax fund to pay for military expenses because the RFPTFA would represent a contract between us and Congress and that we could hold them accountable if they were to violate it. She acknowledged that the bill was imperfect and would not accomplish as much as many people would like, but hoped that we would see it as an initial step in an incremental process.

I went next. Here’s more-or-less the argument I gave against endorsement:

War Tax Resisters and Peace Tax Fund advocates agree that the belligerent militarism of the United States is a grave problem, that individuals must act to oppose it, and that our tax dollars are an important way in which we can move from complicity to opposition. Because of this, we’re natural allies and have much in common.

The RFPTFA currently being pushed by the NCPTF has some significant problems. So much so that although our groups have much in common in our outlook and our interests, I think it would be a mistake for NWTRCC to endorse the RFPTFA. Indeed, the problems with the bill are so significant that if the bill ever looked as though it might pass, we would be wiser to actively oppose the bill than to endorse it.

The main problems with the bill are two: 1) it’s no good, and 2) it’s bad. That is, not only would it not deliver any meaningful benefits, but it would have harmful effects that would be damaging to the war tax resistance movement and dangerous to individual war tax resisters.

The reason why I say the bill is no good is this. If the bill passes, it would give Congress more taxpayer money to spend and would allow Congress to spend as much money as it likes on war and armaments. Every dollar paid into the “Peace Tax Fund” would increase taxpayer spending on the military.

This sounds like exactly the opposite of what the NCPTF intends, which may be true. But sometimes good intentions lead to counterproductive laws and policies. If you read the NCPTF literature, you’ll see that they admit that the bill would increase government revenue without decreasing how much Congress could spend on war:

First, they admit that if the bill were to pass “The government would receive more revenue from increased participation in the payment of income taxes and would spend less on the cost of forced collections.” They also say, of those who pay into the PTF, “nor will their participation in the Peace Tax Fund directly decrease the amount of money spent on war [as] this would violate the Constitutionally given powers of Congress to determine spending priorities.”

So Congress would have more taxpayer money than before and could spend as much as it wants on war. Why on earth would we want this? Well, we’re supposed to want this because at least our money wouldn’t be spent on war. But this is just an illusion.

The basic problem has to do with displacement. If you pay into the Peace Tax Fund and Congress can only spend “your” money on something nice like the National Park Service, Congress can just take some other money that it had been planning to spend on the Park Service and divert it to the Pentagon. So Congress spends just like it always has, with a little more taxpayer money than it would have had otherwise, but the people who pay into the Peace Tax Fund falsely believe that they aren’t responsible for the results of that increased spending.

It would be as though I were to pour a cup of sand into a mug full of hot coffee and then claim that I wasn’t responsible for the spillover since my sand sank to the bottom of the mug and it was only someone else’s coffee that spilled over the top.

So that’s why the RFPTFA isn’t any good. Now here’s why it’s bad.

First: it constructs an illusion through which people can be induced to pay for war and militarism while believing that they are not. The war tax resistance movement should be working hard to tear down illusions like this, not build up new ones.

Second: it would divide the war tax resistance movement between those people who maintain their testimony against paying for war and those who take advantage of the false moral cover of the RFPTFA. This would also give the IRS fewer targets to pursue, and make the remaining war tax resisters more likely to be targeted by enforcement actions. If the war tax resistance movement ever does become a powerful force for social change, you can bet that the government will consider passing such a bill — not as a concession to our movement but as a divide-and-conquer technique against it.

Third: it would give a persuasive rhetorical tool to people who oppose war tax resisters. They would say that war tax resisters should just pay into the Peace Tax Fund like good, law-abiding, conscientious people. Imagine what the IRS would say to resisters: “We gave you the ‘Peace Tax Fund’ you wanted — now you’ve got no more excuses not to pay up.”

Those three things are harmful effects the bill would have if it ever became law. I don’t think this is likely, but there’s a fourth reason not to endorse the bill that doesn’t depend on whether or not it is successful in becoming law: advocacy of such a bill sends the message that the war tax resistance movement is naïve and that our conscientious scruples are superficial. It tells people that war tax resisters:

  • are not particularly conscientious at all, but can be easily bought-off by symbolic concessions and simple sleight-of-hand
  • are conscientious enough to check a box on a form, but not conscientious enough to follow through on the ramifications of our actions
  • are willing enough to fund war if you can give us a way to deny that we’re doing it
  • would rather have a certificate from the government recognizing our officially certified conscientiousness than to actually be conscientious

These flaws have been pointed out before, and frequently PTF promoters have responded with an argument along these lines: Sure the RFPTFA won’t reduce military spending and it has at best an ambiguous effect on taxpayer complicity, but it has strong symbolic power: it’s a way to get conscientious objection to military taxation officially recognized, to get a foot in the door, to be able to take a census of conscientious objectors every April 15th, to propagandize for peace with every 1040 booklet, and so forth.

These benefits are not very convincing to me, for a number of reasons, but even if you were to acknowledge them — are they sufficient to justify putting any more energy into a 38-year-old campaign that has gone nowhere at all, currently in support of a piece of legislation that, even as watered down as it is, hasn’t had as much as a committee hearing in over a decade?

I feel strongly about this, and I have not pulled my punches. Some of you may think I’m being uncharitable and unfair. I’ll end on this note: I think the advocates of the RFPTFA have their hearts in the right place. They are temperamentally our allies and I hope they continue to think of themselves that way. I think that to the extent that we agree, we should continue to work closely and warmly together, and to the extent that we disagree we can agree to disagree.

After me, Ray Gingerich spoke, giving what I interpreted as a Thoreauvian argument against the peace tax fund idea: we shouldn’t wait to act conscientiously until the government gives us its permission to do so. In addition, he feels from his work in trying to reintroduce war tax resistance into the Mennonite churches that the peace tax fund is an obstacle to this — it creates an excuse that people use: they say they’ll resist taxes but only when there’s a peace tax fund that allows them to do it legally.

After these prepared remarks from the panel, and Ruth’s discussion which I mentioned above, we heard from the other attendees.

Before Eugene, I thought of myself as a real outlier in my skepticism about the peace tax fund bill. Most of what I heard about the bill in war tax resistance circles was positive, and the way people spoke about it made it seem like NWTRCC enthusiasm for the peace tax fund was a foregone conclusion if not a tautological one. In Eugene I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few other people shared my misgivings about the bill, though I still felt like we were the minority. In Harrisonburg last Saturday, though, it was clear that the tide had shifted dramatically. Even with the executive director of the NCPTF there to pitch the bill, most people had little praise for it, and even the ones who were peace tax fund supporters in the abstract expressed that we probably shouldn’t endorse this version.

Gary Erb noted that most of those present probably wouldn’t qualify as conscientious objectors under the bill’s restrictive language, and so wouldn’t be able to legally avail themselves of the RFPTFA even if they cared to. He also felt the bill would have a divide-and-conquer effect against the WTR movement, and recommended against endorsement.

Geov Parrish felt that the RFPTFA hadn’t a chance of becoming law, so it should be best seen as an educational vehicle. That being the case, it was a poor idea to have watered it down so much in an attempt to make it palatable enough to pass through Congress. Also, he noted that he feels excluded from the RFPTFA and its promotional materials because he is not a Christian.

Joffre Stewart said that as an anarchist resister, begging the state for exemptions and favors isn’t his style. He thinks that conscientious objection to military service was mostly enacted for the state’s benefit, not for the benefit of the COs, and he thinks the same would be true of legalized conscientious objection to military taxation. From this, he draws the conclusion that the reason we don’t have legal conscientious objection to military taxation is that war tax resisters have not yet become sufficiently inconvenient to the government.

Daniel Woodham thought that though the RFPTFA wasn’t perfect, it might make for a good first step, and once it was enacted we could work to amend it or correct its faults over time.

Bethany Criss said that in her view the “laundry list” of items in the section (§3b) of the bill that defines spending that falls under the “military purpose” category shouldn’t be seen as excluding other spending from that category, but only as examples of spending that fall under that category. In her view, once the bill passes, a next step will be to ensure that the “military purpose” definition is interpreted inclusively so that it covers all the stuff we’re worried about.

Greg Reagle gave us some perspective on the reasoning behind watering down the bill to permit Congress to spend the money in the RFPTF on anything in the budget other than things in the military purpose category (previous incarnations of the bill had specified more precisely where that money would go). He said that potential supporters in Congress had balked at having their spending decisions micromanaged by legislation, and so the changes had been made to mollify them.

Erica Weiland wanted to emphasize the positive working relationship between NWTRCC and NCPTF, though she too was opposed to endorsing the bill. As an anarchist she doesn’t much favor trying to solve problems via legislation, but as an activist she tries to inspire well-intentioned people to be more active in ways that seem most appropriate to them, so she wants to encourage PTF promoters to keep doing their thing.

Robert Randall said he was impressed at the high plane on which the discussion was taking place. He thought that the results of passing the RFPTFA might not be all that important, but that there might be some benefits to be had from the campaign to pass the bill anyway.

Pam Allee felt that the bill would help to emphasize that “we are the government” and so we can take control of the budget and change spending priorities so as to emphasize things like education, seat belt law enforcement, and other liberal priorities. She was concerned that the RFPTFA seemed to lack grassroots support.

Larry Bassett paused to wonder whether it was really appropriate to the mission of a group like NWTRCC to be endorsing legislation or the individual projects of the affiliate groups.

Jim Stockwell felt that there might be a contradiction in that for many WTRs, the fact that tax resistance is illegal civil disobedience is an essential part of their WTR, and so legal conscientious objection would not be helpful to them. He hoped our two groups would continue to work together.

Hiro (whose last name I didn’t catch, and whose first name I may be misspelling) encouraged us to patiently work at incremental approaches and not reject RFPTFA just because it wasn’t everything we wanted. That said, she also worried that the government would spend the “peace” tax fund on things based on its warped definition of peacemaking work. She envisioned Blackwater contractors doing their institution-building mopping-up exercises in Iraq (where she is from) and calling it “peacemaking” activities deserving of RFPTFA funding.

Tim Godshall tried to give us some perspective, noting that WTRs are one of the best arguments for the PTF (that is, the existence of WTRs demonstrates that many citizens have a strong conscientious objection that their government needs to accommodate), and also that although the RFPTFA might not have any effect on the military budget, the same could be said of WTRs. He believes that the RFPTFA is one part of a larger campaign to pressure the government to change its spending priorities.

Peter Smith disagreed with the suggestion that if the RFPTFA were to pass it would divide the WTR movement. He agreed that we should not endorse the legislation, but hoped we would continue to support the PTF campaigners.

Ray Gingerich responded to a comment from Joffre Stewart by insisting that he was not an anarchist and indeed believed that a strong, active government (for example, one capable of implementing single-payer universal health care) was not incompatible with pacifism. He plugged nonviolent conflict resolution strategies of the The Unconquerable World / A Force More Powerful school. He also suggested that Marian Franz (the long-time National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund executive director) had been used by people and institutions who wanted to delay their confrontation with taxpayer complicity by putting it off until some distant future in which conscientious objection to military taxation was a legalized option.

Joffre Stewart noted that the U.S. government had no qualms about raiding the Social Security “trust fund” to pay for its military spending, and that it had stacked its “U.S. Institute of Peace” with CIA folk committed to the government’s violent foreign policy. He therefore sees no reason to trust the government to administer a “peace tax fund.”

Bethany Criss told us that not only is she committed to seeing the RFPTFA enacted into law, but that she is also a war tax resister and has been since . She said that although there is an associated “Peace Tax Foundation” with an educational mission, there should be no doubt that the Campaign’s goal is to get the legislation passed into law. She thinks that the bill will be beneficial to war tax resisters and the war tax resistance movement by making WTR more visible. She says that if the bill were enacted, it would not take away the opportunity to resist or say no; that resisters could continue to resist as before if they wished. The goal is to bring more people in to a war tax resistance mindset. She notes that part of the reason the bill was watered down is that their campaign doesn’t yet have enough supporters to bring enough pressure to bear on the legislators; this is another reason why she’d like our support.

Finally, Bill Ramsey felt that we might be better off not concentrating on the (unlikely) endorsement and instead trying to work on ways the two groups can work better together.

was an open-ended discussion without any decisions to be made on either the endorsement or the statement of purpose wording; on , our “business meeting,” we addressed those decisions.

A number of people who could not come to the meeting sent along their opinions about the RFPTFA, and printouts of these were made available to attendees of the business meeting before we took up the issue. These were on the whole much more positive about the Act and more in favor of endorsement than the attendees had been, with one person recommending endorsement, another recommending “NWTRCC continuing its endorsement” of the bill (though we had a hard time determining which if any version of the bill our group had originally endorsed), and another conveying the results of a discussion about the issue held by Sonoma County Taxes for Peace which led to that group deciding to strongly support NWTRCC endorsing the bill.

Predictably, we did not reach consensus at the business meeting on to endorse the RFPTFA. I counted about a half-dozen people in favor of endorsement, maybe half again as many against it. Unfortunately, although a non-endorsement was pretty clearly the inevitable conclusion, it took a while to get there, and we weren’t able to devote as much time as we needed to the stickier question of the Statement of Purpose and its anachronistic reference to the “US Peace Tax Fund Bill.”

The upshot of that discussion was that there were two replacement phrases with a large amount of support:

  • “…support of peace tax fund legislation…”
  • “…support of legislation that would legalize conscientious objection to military taxation…”

While there was broad support for both, neither was able to rally a consensus around it. My proposal to simply scrap the old anachronistic wording for now and perhaps come up with a replacement at a later date also failed to attract consensus support — with many people feeling that by rejecting the endorsement and also eliminating mention of the PTF from our Statement of Purpose it would look too much like we’d conducted a wholesale purge of PTF sympathy from the group.

So when it came down to it, the Statement of Purpose ended up the same way it began in this area: it continues to pledge our support for supporters of the long-gone “US Peace Tax Fund Bill.” This is a little ridiculous, but seems mostly harmless.