Diversity of U.S. War Tax Resisters Makes Unified Tactics Difficult

It is all well and good to consider the impressive variety of tactics that historical tax resistance movements have used to supplement their campaigns, but how do you go about choosing the right set of tactics that will do the most good for your campaign in the here-and-now?

This has lately been a frequent topic of discussion in American war tax resistance circles. Some American war tax resisters have been pushing to convert us from being a coalition of people with a common interest in war tax resistance into an actual movement that has precise goals, particular tactics designed to meet the goals, metrics to measure success, and so forth. (If you’d like to review some of the back-and-forth on this topic, take a look for example at The Picket Line entries for , , and , Larry Rosenwald’s War Tax Resistance Manifesto, and some of the wtr-s email list threads starting in .)

So far, these efforts have floundered in their attempts to move from this sensible-sounding idea towards an implementation that actually defines which goals and which tactics and which criteria we’re all supposed to unite behind. Why might this be so? Why has it proven difficult for a group of people with such a specific and unusual preoccupation as war tax resistance to make headway towards agreeing on something seemingly so basic as which goals they are pursuing?

There are several varieties of war tax resister

It turns out that there are distinct varieties of war tax resisters, and that while unsurprisingly they have a shared interest in the nitty-gritty of tax resistance and a shared dislike for militarism, when it comes to motives, goals, and tactics these varieties are in important ways very different.

There are four varieties of tax resister:

conscientious objection
A tax resister who is motivated by conscientious objection wants his or her conscience to be free of the stain of complicity with what the government does with the tax money. Such a resister doesn’t necessarily care if the government knows about his or her resistance, and doesn’t necessarily feel like he or she needs to be part of a movement — resisting taxes is the right thing to do, resisters like this feel, and they’d do it even if they were alone.
civil disobedience
A tax resister who is using tax resistance as a form of civil-disobedient protest is trying to amplify the effect of his or her protest by breaking the law, publicly, and inviting the legal consequences. It is a way of communicating the strength of the resister’s objections, and his or her willingness to sacrifice for these beliefs. If the government responds by seizing the tax money, that doesn’t necessarily represent a defeat, since the tax resistance is more about taking a principled oppositional stand than about the actual money involved.
nonviolent conflict
A resister who hopes to use tax resistance to reduce the resources available to the government and thereby force it to change its behavior (or perhaps even to replace it or force it to relinquish control), is using tax resistance as a form of nonviolent conflict. Such a resister needs lots of comrades to join in the struggle, and prefers tactics that cost the government the most.
legal test-case
Some tax resisters resist because they conclude that the tax they are resisting was enacted illegally, or is imposed by an institution without the proper authority to do so, or that it is being illegally applied to them. They resist in anticipation of such a legal theory being found to be correct, and for the tax to be legally abolished. In the war tax resistance movement you find this in resisters who argue that the Nuremberg Principles say taxpayers are legally obligated to avoid paying for aggressive war and war crimes, or that the option of conscientious objection to military taxation is a human right.

Many other tax resistance movements do not have the same variety

These varieties are not unique to war tax resistance. They are found in all of the tax resistance campaigns I have studied. But most of those campaigns have been dominated by a single variety, and so it has been much easier — almost second-nature — for them to decide on their goals.

For example, Quaker war tax resisters in the early years of the United States were almost exclusively motivated by conscientious objection. Their goal was to have a conscience clean of involvement in shedding the blood of others, and they developed techniques that satisfied this goal.

Tax resisters in the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain wanted to demonstrate the self-serving hypocrisy of a male-exclusive government that treated women as people when it came time to tax them, but as non-people when it came time to ask for the consent of the governed. These resisters courted arrest and property seizure and used such events as opportunities for protest. They are classic civil-disobedient protesters, and their tactics reflect this.

Tax resisters in the movement pressing for the Reform Act of wanted to “stop the supplies” — that is, withhold enough money from the government that it would be crippled and would be forced to grant the movement’s demands. This is why they augmented their tax strike with a run on the Bank of England. They were using tax resistance as part of a campaign of nonviolent conflict meant to force political change.

Property tax resisters in Depression-era Chicago refused to pay while they pursued a legal challenge to property assessments that had left many wealthy and well-connected property owners exempt. (They won their case, which found the assessments — and therefore the taxes based on them — to be invalid.)

The challenge for American war tax resisters is that their “movement” is not any one of these things, but is an unstable amalgam of elements of all four. Some resisters are conscientious objectors, some are civil disobedients, some are nonviolent resistants, some hope to legalize war tax refusal, and some straddle two or more of these varieties. Because of this, there is little agreement to be had once you get past the tactic of tax resistance itself.

This could change. If the number of war tax resisters were to grow much larger for some reason — for instance because of an unpopular war, a religious revival that emphasizes pacifism, or a revolt against government spending that highlights Pentagon profligacy — perhaps the swelling of the movement would make one variety or another overwhelmingly predominate, and such a movement could more easily unite behind particular goals and tactics.

Another possibility is that a subset of current American war tax resisters who are united by all being of one variety decides to unite on their own behind a particular campaign with goals and tactics that are appropriate to them. If they have success with their approach, they may find that some of the resisters who currently find homes in the other varieties will come to find that approach more to their liking, or will find ways to make it compatible with their own.

These varieties are not entirely distinct

You may notice that the varieties I listed are not entirely distinct. For example, some of the women in the Women’s Tax Resistance League pursued legal challenges that made them seem very much like people in the legal test-case category. Some of the property tax resisters in Chicago were also motivated by a civil-disobedient protest against corrupt and big-spending government.

It is possible for a war tax resister to belong to two, three, maybe even all four categories simultaneously. And many of us in the war tax resistance movement are motivated by more than one of these categories of resistance, or may find ourselves migrating from variety to variety over time as our motivations change.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. You cannot just haphazardly mix-and-match motives, goals, and tactics and expect to come up with something that makes sense (unfortunately, I sometimes see war tax resisters try). Consider these examples:

  • “I resist taxes because I’m unwilling to be complicit in the belligerence of the government. I hope to convince many people to take this stand, and so I am very public about it. I am willing to risk government retribution by doing things that make my resistance more disruptive to the state. I hope that if enough people join me, we will rise up to reorganize society in a less violent way.”
  • “My conscience will not allow me to contribute to killing in any way, so I withhold €84 from my income tax bill and give it instead directly to the Ministry of Education. If enough of us do this, maybe one day the schools will have all the money they need, and the army will have to hold a bake sale if it wants to buy another tank.”

In the first example, the resister talks about his or her motives (“I’m unwilling to be complicit in the belligerence of the government”) sounding like someone motivated by conscientious objection, but chooses tactics (“I am very public… I am willing to risk government retribution by [being] more disruptive to the state”) that sound like they spring from civil disobedience as protest, and has a goal (“we will rise up to reorganize society”) that involves ambitions of using tax resistance as nonviolent force to cause governmental change. And that’s fine. None of this is contradictory or incompatible. You can be motivated by conscientious objection and decide to use tactics of civil disobedience to pursue a campaign of nonviolent resistance.

But the second example is more problematic. The resister again sounds like he or she is motivated by conscientious objection (“My conscience will not allow me to contribute to killing in any way”) but the tactic chosen, to withhold and redirect a symbolic portion from the tax bill, is incompatible with the motive. Someone whose conscience will not allow them to contribute to killing in any way, if that person considers their taxes such a contribution, will be just as unwilling to pay the second €84 as the first €84, and of course each € after that. Furthermore, this resister’s goal — to make the military have to hold a bake sale if it wants to buy a tank — is also not compatible with that symbolic tactic. So a resister like this is incoherent and confused, and is therefore less effective and less persuasive.

Different varieties of resister evaluate tactics differently

Remember Evan Reeves? He’s an American war tax resister who decided to protest the connection between taxes and war by paying his taxes, but in a unique way: he wrote 5,574 checks, each one for ⅟5,574th of his tax bill (about 96¢), and each one bearing the name of a different war victim in the “memo” field.

This was an innovative, creative, interesting tactic — but if you try to imagine how it appears from the vantage point of war tax resisters in each of the varieties I described, you’ll get some idea of how difficult it can be to pick a tactic that pleases everybody. Here is one way I have imagined four resisters evaluating Reeves’s tactic:

  • “That wouldn’t work for me. If I pay my taxes, in any form, I help to pay for war. If I did this, at the same time I was expressing sympathy for 5,574 war victims, I’d be paying for their victimization.”
  • “That’s a great way of making the connection between taxes and the victims of war, and it’s very media-savvy as well. Not only that, but you may get some people at the tax office to scratch their heads and put two and two together. The only thing that would be better is if it were illegal, so that it put you in clear opposition to the government.”
  • “How much does it cost the government to process a check? If it’s more than 96¢ you may have struck upon a way for people to withhold resources from the government without risking legal sanction. It’s worth investigating further.”
  • “I don’t get it. How does this get us any closer to legalizing conscientious objection to military taxation? The whole point is that you shouldn’t have to pay those taxes in the first place.”

There’s also a fundamental ideological divide at work

Another thing that can make it difficult for American war tax resisters to agree on tactics and goals is that there is a fundamental disagreement among these resisters about whether the U.S. government is salvageable.

Many American war tax resisters believe that their government is, by and large, a force for good that ought to be preserved and strengthened, and that its militarism is a flaw that for the time being and in some contexts necessarily puts conscientious people in opposition to it. Our goal, such resisters believe, is to reform the government by removing this flaw so that it can do the good work it ought to be doing without tangling us in its bloody errors.

Many other American war tax resisters believe that their government is, by and large, a force for evil — an irredeemable tool of militarism whose primary function is violence. They believe that conscientious people like themselves ought to be wholly in opposition to it, should withdraw allegiance from it, and hope to replace it with something else entirely.

I see this divide come into play frequently among American war tax resisters. It makes a big difference when evaluating tactics because resisters in one camp will ask “but how does this weaken the government?” while resisters in the other camp will ask “but how can we do this without weakening the government (or seeming to ally ourselves with enemies of the government)?” and immediately they’re at loggerheads.

There are war tax resisters who can say, almost in the same breath, that people ought to refuse to pay their taxes because so much of the federal budget is for war, and that corporations ought to pay more taxes because they have a responsibility to help pay for government programs. At first this didn’t make any sense to me at all, but then I came to realize that if you believe that government is essentially good, though terribly flawed, and if you are a tax resister as a mode of civil-disobedient protest, it’s not contradictory to want to resist taxes yourself (to amplify your protest) while hoping that corporations pay more taxes (so the on-the-whole benevolent government can accomplish more) — misguided, perhaps, but not contradictory.

In conclusion…

Anyway, I bring all this up in part because I think it helps to explain why some of the arguments that occupy the modern American war tax resistance movement never seem to go anywhere, but also in part because I want to prepare people who read about my catalog of tax resistance tactics. It is very unlikely that all of the tactics on the list will appeal to you. Some of the tactics will seem to you to be bizarre, counterproductive, or irrelevant to the sort of campaign you are hoping for. This is because tax resistance is a tactic that belongs to movements of many sorts, with many motivations, and many goals. Which tactics will best harmonize with tax resistance will depend on the variety of tax resistance campaign they are part of.