Tax Resistance in “The Catholic Worker” 1988–89

Today, some excerpts from The Catholic News Archive concerning tax resistance in . These are all from the pen of Karl Meyer, writing in The Catholic Worker.

First, from the issue:

Who’s Afraid of the IRS? Strategies for Refusal

By Karl Meyer

Out of my twenty-eight years of agitating, scheming and refusing payment of all federal income taxes, I have a fund of delightful IRS confrontation stories. I would love to share them with you as we go along, but, for this discussion, I would like to set out some serious ideas about the goals and development of our movement.

Why are we war tax refusers? While we remain a tiny minority, our actions are still important because we make an important statement to organizations and causes that are working for peace and social justice.

Let me illustrate this. In , Women for Peace organized a huge peace walk in Chicago. There were at least 10,000 people marching, although it was a cold, windy, miserable day. We gathered for the typical rally in Grant Park. We were addressed by Helen Caldicott and Jesse Jackson, among many others, who told us about the dangers of the nuclear age. Helen Caldicott gave a fine speech until she began to suggest what we should do about all this. She suggested that it was urgent that we should all drop whatever we were doing for the next few weeks, and devote all our energy to the election of Walter Mondale, in order to forestall a second term for Ronald Reagan. Jesse Jackson’s solution was not much better. At the end of the rally, he asked us to all join hands and sing, “We shall overcome.”

As we were singing it occurred to me that out of the 10,000 people gathered there who were devoted to peace, only a handful were tax refusers. Most of them were still paying their per capita share of the military budget, which was on the order of $1,000 per year per person.

So I calculated that there was $10 million dollars in collected war taxes, swaying back and forth in the wind and the rain, singing, “We shall overcome, someday.”

Is Effectiveness Important?

It is common to say that the money is not important, that it is the act of protest that counts. It is common to say that we must expect the eventual collection of our refused war taxes.

Is effectiveness important? I say that it is. I want tax refusal that works. If it does not work for me, I may lose the will to persist in it. And if it does not work for me, I do not see how I can even think about an effective mass movement.

So, I have tried to advocate methods and tactics that will: maximize the amount of effective tax refusal and the thoroughness of war tax refusal, so that we minimize the collection of taxes by IRS; minimize the level of personal risk; minimize the level of personal harassment by IRS assessment and collection officers; minimize the level of personal anxiety and emotional pressure that is felt by the individual tax refuser.

In the CAWRSG and the Chicago Catholic Worker, many people are using a strategy that effectively prevents the withholding, assessment and collection of any federal income tax, and, at the same time, reduces the level of IRS contacts to nothing, or to practically nothing. It is a simple strategy. We prevent the withholding of all federal income tax by claiming extra allowances on the W-4 form. We file no income tax return and send no direct letters or notices about it to the IRS. If the IRS sends notices about failure to file, we ignore those notices and make no reply.

Since the war tax refusal effort came back to life as an organized movement in , we have had no assessment, no collection, and no significant IRS harassment against any of the individuals who followed all of the elements of this strategy, and those individuals who have donated thousands of dollars of war tax refusal money to the work for peace and justice.

It works for the individuals who use it. And yet it does not seem to lead to a steadily or rapidly expanding base of committed war tax refusers. There is a high rate of attrition among committed war tax refusers, even among those who are using an effective method and have suffered no apparent discouraging consequences from their action.


It is quite understandable to me that there would be attrition among people who practice the self-defeating strategies that are advocated by some of the more scrupulous and pious religious and political tendencies in our movement. If you refuse all or part of your war taxes, and then file a tax return about it, assessing the tax against yourself, telling the IRS exactly how much they can expect to collect, where you work, where you live, and even where you bank, if, in short, you tell them how much to collect and where to collect it, it is understandable that they will soon succeed in collecting. And, if they quickly collect half again as much as you would otherwise have paid (in fines and penalties) and, meanwhile, threaten your sense of security in your job and in your home, it is pretty easy to understand why many people would give up after two or three years of that and go back to paying taxes.

But what puzzles me is why there is still a high rate of attrition among people who have used a strategy that works, and who have not yet experienced any real threat of enforcement from the IRS.

Here I come to the problem of generalized anxiety that is, to a large extent, irrational. There are many of us old-timers who feel almost total security about war tax refusal. There is hardly a grain of fear of the IRS, hardly a grain of fear of the consequences of war tax refusal left in us.

But for many of the newer generation, the generation of who are not yet so rooted in this, a generalized level of anxiety persists. They believe in the correctness of this witness, and it works for them and for other people that they know. Yet, they remain anxious about the ultimate consequences for their way of life and other personal goals, particularly career goals and home ownership goals, if the IRS would eventually catch up with them and nail them.

In the struggle to make a living and to hold together our families and personal relationships, there are many times when stress and anxiety may threaten to overwhelm us. There are times when we feel pressures and stress coming at us from all sides, and we wonder if we will be able to cope. To survive emotionally, we seek to dump overboard some of the sources of stress in our lives, and the war tax refusal commitment can be one of the first victims of this anxiety-reduction syndrome.

How can we deal with this source of attrition in our movement, which leads sincere people to abandon the leadings of their conscience, and causes them to submit to a permanent wounding or searing of their conscience?

Close-knit affinity groups and support groups are the first key to this answer. I find that the Catholic Worker community in Chicago provides this continuous source of encouragement and support, that sustains people in that community through intermittent periods of uncertainty or anxiety.

I think that a second key lies in broader educational efforts, such as workshops, and the written media of our movement, which can debunk much of the irrational IRS phobia which exists in our society, a phobia that has been persistently and carefully fostered by the government of the United States, and by the mass media that are subservient to the government.

War tax refusal is a very effective form of personal and social witness. It is an action that works. The risks for the individual are very low when compared to the benefits for the cause of peace.

But we need to continue to deal with an IRS phobia that is largely irrational but very prevalent, even among many who have already become involved.

(Excerpts from an address to New England war tax resisters, . For information on tax refusal, contact the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, P.O. Box 85810, Seattle, WA 98145, (206) 522‒4377, or the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012 (212) 228‒0450, which publishes the Guide to War Tax Resistance, for $8, plus $1 for postage and handling. Eds. note.)

A year later, in the issue, Meyer walked back some of his optimism about the ease of the non-filing method:

New IRS Ploys May Affect War Tax Resisters

By Karl Meyer

(As tax time draws near once again, we encourage all our readers who are in a position to do so to consider participating in some form of war tax resistance. Karl Meyer, a long time member of the Catholic Worker family and a long time tax resister, here proposes one method of tax resistance. Karl’s method, while effective, has been the subject of some discussion over the years — because it involves making false statements to the government and refusing to file income tax returns, many people have found that they cannot back this method.

For those who would seek other ways to resist paying war taxes, several possibilities exist. One is to live below the minimum taxable income. Another is to decline to pay taxes, but to inform the IRS of your refusal and your reasons for doing so. You could also refuse to pay that percentage of your taxes which would be used for defense purposes. In any case, the money which would otherwise have gone for taxes could be used or donated to peaceful, just, and merciful ends. Moreover the income tax is not the only war-related tax we pay — one may resist war taxes by not paying the federal telephone tax which goes for defense purposes.

For information on war tax refusal, contact the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, P.O. Box 85810, Seattle WA 98145, (206) 522‒4377. Or get in touch with the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012, (212) 228‒0450, which publishes the Guide to War Tax Resistance, for $8 plus $1 postage and handling. — Eds. note.)

It is now nineteen years since The Catholic Worker published a landmark article called “A Fund for Mankind, Through Effective Tax Resistance” (CW, ).

In that article I explained exactly how to prevent the withholding of war taxes by claiming extra allowances on W-4 Forms. For the first time we showed how people who were employed for wages or salaries could prevent withholding and practice tax refusal effectively. This article led to a tremendous growth in resistance to taxes for the war in Vietnam. Thousands of people have used the W-4 method in .

The Internal Revenue Service never found a cost effective antidote to what we started. The Catholic Worker for carried excerpts from a speech I had given the year before, explaining the most effective strategy for war tax refusal. I believe that strategy remains the best, but there are new developments that may decrease its effectiveness in the years to come.

The elements of our strategy are simple: (1) We prevent withholding of war taxes by claiming extra allowances on the W-4 Form, filed with wage employers. (2) We prevent assessment of taxes by not filing income tax returns and not sending direct letters or notices to the IRS about it. (3) If the IRS sends us notices about failure to file, we ignore them and make no reply. (4) If they call us or visit us, we talk to them about the wrongfulness of the arms race.

For nineteen years there was a large comfortable hole in the enforcement capabilities of IRS. They did not have an effective program for following up and collecting from hard-core non-filers. Therefore there were very few assessments or collections against those who followed all of the elements of the strategy above.

We are now entering a more difficult time for this form of tax resistance. Perhaps the golden age of easy tax resistance is ending.

For several years the frequency of notices about failure to file has increased steadily. In , the IRS announced a program that may bring better results for tax enforcement. They now have computer programs that enable them to prepare and mail automated tax assessments, based on W-2 wage reports from employers and 1099 reports from interest and dividend payers. They say that this will enable them to make rapid assessments against a large percentage of those who have ignored notices to file in the past. By their own estimates, there are about one million of these hard-core non-filers. That includes war tax refusers.

We do not know yet how thorough and effective this program may be. Public IRS estimates of their enforcement capabilities have usually been greatly exaggerated, to scare people into compliance. The IRS machine was bogged down last year, because the so-called “tax-simplification” of made the tax filing system more complicated than ever before.

Two long term non-filers from the Chicago movement contacted me for counseling in , after receiving automated assessments for past years. Many others have not been touched yet. Only time will tell, but it seems likely that IRS assessment capabilities will improve with this program.

IRS will still face the obstacle of trying to collect from determined resisters. I believe that non-filing will remain a key element in an effective strategy, but it will not work as smoothly as it used to.

People will need to think ahead further about the impact of enforcement on their employment and property ownership goals.

Our alternative funds and support groups should give greater priority to mutual aid payments for resisters who suffer unexpected losses from IRS seizures. Mutual aid is one way of sharing the unpredictable burdens of sporadic IRS enforcement programs, but resisters with families must also be more cautious in insuring themselves against seizure losses. Nonfilers who may have experienced no collection hassles for many years, should now consider the wisdom of investing a large part of their redirected taxes into retrievable loans to non-profit community development projects, in order to protect themselves financially against increased possibilities of IRS assessments and collections. I do not believe in bank savings, because the U.S. Treasury borrows from banks to fund the military deficit.

Tenacious resistance to war taxes is rooted in the radical philosophy and traditions of the Catholic Worker movement. We learned it from Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day.

We have been willing to live in simplicity and to share with others in order to remain faithful to our whole vision of a just society, as students of Matthew, a tax collector who became a “fisher of men.” As the IRS tightens its nets, we will find ways to remain true to the leadings of conscience: more self-employment, more flexible employment, and more simplicity of life.

For a thorough leaflet on how to prevent withholding of tax from wages, send two stamps and a self-addressed envelope to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee at the address given above. Ask for the pamphlet “Practical War Tax Resistance: Controlling Federal Tax Withholding.”

I am always glad to talk to people about war tax refusal. Call me evenings at (312) 784‒8065. My address is 1460 Carmen, Chicago, IL 60640.

In the issue of The Catholic Worker, Karl Meyer was back, to discuss the pros and cons of tax return filing:

To File Or Not to File

by Karl Meyer

(The following is excerpted from a longer collection of Karl Meyer’s, Fear of Filing, Fear of Not Filing: Weighing the Risks, Benefits and Consequences for War Tax Refusers. Since it seems that we no sooner wrap up the old year, than the new one arrives, bringing with it the annual tax statement, what better time to consider the pros and cons of dealing with the IRS? We hope to further the discussion in the CW, to give readers time to ruminate before . ―Eds. note.)

Apart from practical personal benefits or risks, many people make a decision on the filing question based upon philosophical, ethical, or political perspectives about war tax refusal.

Philosophical arguments for filing returns include the following:

  • The idea of equitable taxation for social needs is sound in itself; therefore we should cooperate with the underlying taxation system, while openly resisting only the appropriation of taxes for war.
  • The moral basis of conscientious war tax refusal relies upon open disobedience and acceptance of consequences. We should resist taxes openly, and not evade them or conceal our income in any way.
  • The moral and political impact of conscientious tax refusal comes from informing the IRS and our political representatives about our protest and the reasons for it. If we refuse taxes without informing the IRS , there will be no political impact, because we will not be clearly distinguishable from millions of others who evade taxes for reasons of personal benefit.
  • The act of political protest is more significant than preventing specific collection of taxes from us.

Arguments for not filing include the following:

  • Because of the domination of militarism, the U.S. tax system has become so perverse and distorted that it serves no positive social purpose. If we wish to contribute to the needs of society, we can do that more effectively by taxing ourselves and contributing to the unmet needs that we see, instead of cooperating with the Federal taxation system in any way.
  • The Federal government and the IRS have become morally illegitimate. We have no obligation to turn ourselves in to them, or to accept the penalties and harassment that they impose on tax refusers.
  • The political impact of filing protest returns is negligible. IRS employees pay no attention to the protest part; because of their vested interests they are among the people least likely to be influenced by our ideas. We can refuse taxes openly without turning ourselves in to the IRS. We can have more political and social impact by talking openly about our tax refusal to friends and co-workers who are more likely to be influenced by us. We can communicate openly with the general public (supposedly the sovereign authority of our republic) by leaflets, public education, and letters to periodicals.
  • Preventing assessment and collection is more significant than tax protest alone, because when we prevent collection, we are able to use thousands of dollars of uncollected taxes to finance directly political, educational and social causes that meet the true needs of society. If we countenance assessment and collection, we have fewer resources left to devote to the common good.