Attacks Against I.R.S. Employees Have Risen in Recent Years

, I’m finishing off Violence Week here at The Picket Line.

Violence certainly can be an effective way to disrupt the tax collecting bureaucracy. Most tax collectors are not particularly enthusiastic about their calling, and so a little intimidation can go a long way in discouraging them. This in turn makes tax collection more expensive for the government, decreasing its return-on-investment and compelling it either to tighten its belt or to resort to higher taxes and thereby expand the ranks of resisters.

The IRS even now is complaining of “a surge of hostility towards the federal government” that threatens its employees. “Attacks and threats against IRS employees and facilities have risen steadily in recent years.” Taxation is such a political hot potato, and politicians are so venal, that the people who most profit from taxes are often the first ones to fan the flames of hostility.

Violence also has a way of backfiring. Tax resistance campaigns often show great success right up to the point where they start relying on violent tactics, whereupon they lose popular support, become subject to an easier-to-justify draconian crack-down, or reinvigorate their opponents. Violence also, in a less-obvious way, harms the body politic by increasing fear, divisiveness, and tension, by giving precedent to people who already have tendencies to resolve conflicts violently, by making it harder for opposing sides to come to a reconciliation, and so forth. And of course, in many cases, it is just cruel and wrong in its own right.

I have presented examples this week largely without passing judgment as to whether they were justified or helpful to their cause. Some examples, for instance the Rebecca Riots, are hard to imagine without violence. Other examples, for instance the Regulator movement in colonial North Carolina, seemed to me to be cases where violent tactics were counterproductive to the point of being disastrous. And in some cases, the violence was so cruel or misdirected that even if you were being generous about the ends justifying the means, you would be hard-pressed to defend it. (You can read my personal views about whether violence directed at tax collectors can be justified or helpful at an earlier Picket Line post.)

A good example of violence being used successfully is also an unsavory one. White supremacists in the defeated states of the Confederacy after the U.S. Civil War used violent white militias to back up their tax resistance campaign against the reconstruction state governments that were being propped up by the victorious Union forces. In Louisiana, dozens of armed men from the paramilitary “White League”…

…came to prevent the deputy tax-collector effecting a sale, armed with revolvers nearly all. Mr. Fournet came and threatened the deputy and tax-collector. The deputy and tax-collector ran into their offices. I came down and called upon the citizens to clear the court-house, but could not succeed. I then called upon the military, but they had no orders at that time to give me assistance to carry out the law.

When the deputy tax-collector attempted to make a sale Mr. Fournet raised his hand and struck him. The deputy then shoved him down. As soon as this was done forty, fifty, or sixty men came with their revolvers in hand.

White supremacist paramilitary groups went from terrorizing tax collectors and auctioneers to intimidating voters, assassinating office-holders, and massacring blacks. Their terror campaign was ultimately successful at wearing down the will of the North. The U.S. withdrew federal troops, whereupon the white supremacist forces retook political control, the white paramilitaries were absorbed into the state militias, and the white supremacists held absolute political control for generations after.

So, yes, sometimes the terrorists do win, and sometimes violence is successful, for some definitions of “success.”

Here are a few examples of attacks on tax officials that I wasn’t sure how to categorize… I include them below in a sort of catch-all miscellany category:

  • In one of the more amusing cases in my archive, when colonial Governor John Evans tried to impose a tax on shipping on the Delaware river, in violation of the colonial charter, and to enforce this by firing cannons on vessels that tried to pass his fort without paying, Richard Hill decided to defy the tax. First he sent men “with the ship’s papers to the fort, to show that the vessel had been regularly cleared at the custom-house, and to endeavour to persuade the officer to suffer her to pass without molestation,” but that didn’t work. Then he just tried to sail by, “steering as near to the opposite side as he safely could,” and almost got through “without damage, except [for] the main-sail, which was shot through.” Then:

    The officer at the fort, not willing to miss his prize, immediately had his boat manned and went in pursuit. [Hill’s] ship’s sails were now slackened, and the boat was allowed to come alongside, and having fastened a rope to the ship, the officer and his men came on board. Whilst engaged in a warm controversy with the owner and his friends, some one on board (no doubt advisedly) quietly loosed the boat and let her drift astern. The ship was now under full sail, and when the officer at length discovered that he was in danger of a voyage to the West Indies, and that all his hopes of retreat were cut off, his courage failed, and he suffered himself to be led as a prisoner into the cabin.

    Hill landed on the Jersey side of the river, run by Evans’s rival-governor Lord Cornbury, “who claimed in his own right the exclusive jurisdiction of the river” and, being “a proud and haughty man, on hearing the case, was quite indignant at this encroachment on his prerogative, and he threatened the officer in no measured terms of rebuke, who now became seriously alarmed at his situation, and sued for pardon, making many professions of sorrow for the offence he had committed. At length, having promised never to attempt the like again, he was suffered to depart.” Evans then gave up on his pet tax.
  • When a higher court ordered county court judges in Missouri to institute taxes there to pay off the owners of fraudulently-issued railroad bonds, “a gang of armed men rode into the county seat of Osceola and held tax officials at gunpoint while its members stole all the official tax records. The gang warned the county court judges that they would be lynched unless they resigned immediately. Lawmen recognized individuals in the gang but took no action because they knew residents admired the gang more than they did the court. … All three judges resigned and, at a special election, voters selected three dedicated Greenbackers, one of them a relative of train robber Cole Younger who could presumably be trusted not to ally with railroads” … “Under renewed popular threats of physical harm, county courts in Knox and Macon devised schemes in that prevented the county treasuries from ever having enough funds to pay railroad debts.”
  • British Constitutionalists last year stormed a courtroom where a man was challenging his council tax bill and attempted to place the judge under citizens’ arrest. “In chaotic scenes, police rescued Judge Michael Peake from the clutches of a mob and escorted him safely from the County Court…”