Karl Hess Writes About His Tax Resistance Stand

Imagine taking a dyed-in-the-wool Goldwater Republican and then beaming enough Jack Kerouac, “man in the gray flannel suit,” Betty Friedan, Masters & Johnson, Marlon Brando, Abbie Hoffman, and so forth into his brain that he flips out and becomes as passionately anti-establishment, anti-corporate, anti-Babbitt as he had been conservative. That’s Karl Hess. I found a copy of his Dear America (1975) via our inter-library loan program. It’s got plenty of interest throughout, but I’ll restrict myself here to excerpting some of what he has to say about his tax resistance:

I am a tax resister.

I refuse to support a predatory government which wastes the work of the citizens on welfare programs which debase, harass, and regiment the poor into a special political constituency — without even scratching the surface of a solution to poverty, a solution which, common sense tells us, is to be found in work.

I refuse to support a government which wastes the work and lives of citizens in war programs which do not defend the citizens, which make some rich and others dead, which reflect dreams of empire rather than the good works of democratic life.

If everyone took that attitude, I have been told, democracy would fall.

The rulers say that. The rich men say that. The women in the social clubs say that. The professors say that. The labor bosses say that. The factory bosses say that. The professional patriots say that.

Common sense says something else. If everyone took the attitude of refusing to support government which offends them, which transgresses their own good sense and morality, we would have democratic life in the fullest, most participatory sense. Government which could not find the loyal support of people would fall. Government which could find the support of only some people would have to move with modified respect to those who would not support it. And everyone would be absolutely responsible themselves for what government did not do and did do. Perhaps it is true that government of the absolutist, winner-take-all kind we have today would fall. But in its place would rise a system of governance rooted firmly and absolutely in the will of the people and not in the whims of their representatives.

One result of resistance is that I cannot own property (aside from clothes and tools) and I do not. It is a lesson which, although it seemed harsh for a time, is in fact wonderfully useful and gently strengthening. With property removed as a major consideration, at least the sort of property for which we are taught to strive, for which we are prepared to kill others or ourselves — with that sort of property legally denied me, I have attended more carefully than ever to other sorts of things: to friendships and to skills, to self-reliance and to active performance rather than obsessive accumulation.

The thugs and bullies of the Internal Revenue Service, as properly befits their disposition, consider the tax rebels, the tax resisters, the worst of all criminals. They are prepared to wheel and deal, of course, with any gangster or any millionaire, any ordinary felon who wants to make a deal. Presidents who stray, politicians who connive, businessmen who chisel, can all, without exception, make deals, settle for so much on the dollar, hire great attorneys, even have the laws rewritten. Ordinary people cannot. The marauders of the Internal Revenue Service, with strict quotas for how much they have to squeeze from taxpayers, descend on ordinary working people like locusts and plague them even unto death. But the treat the rich with kid gloves and they deal, deal, deal. But tax resisters! That is something else. Millions are spent to recover the piddling war tax on phone bills which so many war opponents have refused to pay. And with full-fledged resisters, the “revenooers” have virtual seizures of fury, go blind with rage, and sow the whirlwind. In my case, in the half-dozen years I have resisted them, they have applied a 100 percent lien to everything they can get their hands on. I cannot own a car, have a bank account, receive a salary.

But the lesson learned is better than the angers aroused. I am a competent commercial welder. I can work for people on a barter basis, taking an exchange for my work on the spot. I tell the “revenooers” how much of that I do, for I understand that not to tell them would give them a grand chance to clap me in jail for an ordinary crime. I know, of course, that they must be planning to try to get me there anyway, but if they do it will be simply because of principled resistance to their power and to the corporate system it represents.

This is not an ordinary crime. It is a resistance, precisely the same sort of resistance that some of my ancestors mounted against the power of the British Crown and the corporate colonizers who were treating Americans as nothing more than work animals, to be flogged for all they were worth and bled for all they could stand. So are the citizens generally today regarded by the spenders and the wheelers and the dealers in Washington and, in particular, by their most bullying agents, the tax collectors. They need to be resisted. And they need to know that in that resistance is the same spirit that overthrew the bureaucrats once before. Something needs to haunt those people. Certainly their consciences never haunt them. Well enough. Let the traditions of this country, this country of resisters and rebels, haunt them. I hope the same spirit eventually will do more than haunt them.

During the same period [in which Hess was living in a semi-spontaneous, non-hierarchical houseboat cooperative] I began a small act of resistance which has had large repercussions in ways I could not imagine when the resistance began. I decided to stop paying taxes.

It was not for an heroic theoretical reason or for any other reason which, in the long run, could be called effective or well thought out.

While working as a welder, I was called in by the Internal Revenue Service to be audited for returns filed while working in politics. The auditing of the losers in a political campaign has by now become simple routine for the victors.

On point after point, it seemed to me, the adding machine person doing the auditing would almost angrily reject any discussion of whether or not a particular decision was just or fair. Instead, the phrase “it’s the rule” was a constant rejoinder. Now I am sure that there are people who get themselves so heavily involved in a job that they cannot, in fact, ever act counter to the rules of their superiors. But even in such cases, at least at an industrial level, you find people who will bitch mightily and discuss lengthily the morality or sense of a rule, even if and as they obey it and force it on others. Not so with the little, pinched people of the Internal Revenue Service. In the course of a long audit of many years of returns, I met many of these people. Not one of them seemed to have retained a shred of human decency in the way they worked. They were totally subservient to the corporate demands of their agency, extensions of corporate machine planning, and absolutely thing else. The easy, sophisticated habit of castigating soldiers for being robots has never really been justified, to my mind. Throughout the Indo-Chinese war there were resistances by soldiers. Every war is full of stories in which ordinary decency breaks through the most incredibly barbarous situations to turn soldiers into human beings, if only for an instant.

But never has it come to my attention or been part of my experience that a revenue agent, a tax collector, has put humanity above regulation. They are, again in my own experience, the most abjectly humorless, dehumanized, order-taking, weak-charactered, easily vicious, almost casually amoral people I have met. If you want to look for a fascist constituency in America, I would suggest that you turn away from ordinary working people, from the small towns, from the neighborhood bullies even, and focus with prudential fear on the hollow men and women who are the cold cogs of federal bureaucracies such as the Internal Revenue Service.

At any rate, to deal with them is to loathe them. And it was while dealing with them, and loathing them, that the most stubborn part of my conservative background hammered its way to the surface. After years of writing against the creeping, creepy power of the federal bureaucracy, after years of theory about the nature of bureaucrats and the dynamics of bureaucratic organization, I suddenly found myself (1) in a face-to-face, significant confrontation with actual, not theoretical, bureaucrats and (2) at a point where I could actually take an action in relation to the bureaucrats rather than just strike a rhetorical pose in regard to them.

Several things about such a moment. It comes, like anger, quickly and without much warning. It usually reflects your general disposition and not any particularly exact need of that disposition. It is not, in short, a utilitarian anger, it is simply an anger.

And so, without urging that it is something everybody should do (though I wish they would) and certainly without claiming that it’s the best action a person can take (it actually causes the rebel more trouble, I suppose, than it causes the bureaucrats, since they use the rebellions to justify expanding their own power), without making any extravagant claims for the practice, I can only say that I chose, face-to-face with these prime agents of the state, to tell them “No.” I became a tax resister, not simply because of war, not simply because of corruption, not simply because of wanting to emulate the tax-free status of so many corporations, and certainly not because of a precise political position. I became a tax resister, at that particular moment, because I got mad and because somewhere in everybody’s life there probably is a line in the real world which you will not or cannot cross and which, often with the sort of sudden anger I felt, you balk at, stand on, and fight on. In a world of power and command and regimentation and regulation these lines appear with greater frequency. The rate at which they offend people is the rate of movement toward revolutionary change, I suppose.

Although aware that the decision to stop paying taxes grew out of general anger, I did think that there were particular and publicly responsible reasons for doing it. The Declaration of Independence spells out some of those reasons. I referred to it in the first of my letters to the IRS, refusing to pay taxes assessed in the past or demanded in the future.

We all talk about it. But here, as I said, was a time of being face-to-face with it. And so the Declaration did seem appropriate. I sent a copy of it to the IRS and pointed out that I had concluded, in all conscience, that the tax money was used for a warfare system that killed to preserve the power of the privileged few and a welfare system that regimented the poor for the same purpose, all within a federal system that had absolutely taken over and overpowered every right of individual or community-based freedom that had been envisioned in the settlement of the country.

I have done that now for seven years. The results have been predictable in one way, astonishing in another.

The predictable is that the IRS would not be interested in a declaration of conscience. (Interesting contrast: people who, for reasons of conscience, will not kill are exempted from military service. But no one is exempted, through taxes, from general service to the very state that orders the killing in the first place! The state, it seems, takes money more seriously than life.)

Over the years, in pursuit of its many pounds of flesh, the IRS has systematically slapped a 100 percent lien on every piece of my life they could locate. First came bank accounts. They got very little because I have very little. Then came salaries. For a time I was making a salary as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. The IRS confiscated it all. So I quit, preferring to remain close to the Institute as a friend rather than as a full-time worker for the government. Once, when I asked the IRS how I might handle a situation in which they took 100 percent of everything I earned while the corner grocer still demanded a smidgen for rutabagas, the IRS robot facing me at the moment replied, with simple clarity: “That’s not our problem.”

It quickly became apparent that the only way to survive at all is to work in ways by which labor can be swapped directly for sustenance. I have done that ever since, even while dutifully filing with the IRS an annual statement refusing to pay taxes.

The unexpected results of all this have to do with financial convenience and with property.

Not having a checking account, for instance, is an inconvenience. It also is an education and the basis for, I believe, alternative ways of handling money altogether.…

Property is another thing. I now understand that, because of my tax resistance, I can never legally own a single piece of property beyond the simplest personal items. If I did, the IRS, with its insistence that 100 percent of everything I might own or ever earn is rightfully theirs, would confiscate it. So, no property.

[But] the deprivation of property has led me to the most meaningful sense of my own life and skill and my own relationships with other people as being superior to my old concerns for property simply as property.