Michael Harrington Criticizes the Tax Resistance Tactic

I find thoughtful critiques of tax resistance hard to come by (in the English-language web anyway). Most criticisms these days are knee-jerk and not well-considered. This is probably because tax resistance hasn’t risen to widespread use or become prominent in other ways in Anglophone countries lately, and so those who would argue against it haven’t seen any need to do so.

But in Michael Harrington tried to write such a critique. At the time, Harrington was prominent in the Socialist Party, and as he became more enamored of the tactic of trying to get socialist policies enacted by working from within an established major party, helped to found what became the Democratic Socialists of America, a sort of left-side tug trying to influence the direction of the establishment Democratic Party Titanic. That group behaves as though there were a seat at the table for a left-wing political party in ordinary American electoral politics, and as such is fervently non-revolutionary and indeed fairly protective of the status quo. (The wikipedia page notes that “[t]he organization has at times endorsed Democratic electoral candidates, notably including Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders as well as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.”)

Interestingly, Harrington started out in the Catholic Worker movement and was for a time editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper. He therefore must have been familiar with the tax resistance of Ammon Hennacy and of others whom Hennacy introduced through his writing to Catholic Worker readers.

Here is Harrington’s critique of tax resistance in the context of the movement to oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam:

[I] oppose the notion that one can easily violate the law in a democratic society. Democracy is an excruciatingly imperfect method of political organization — but the very best there is.…

[And] it is “blasphemous” when an individual casually pretends to be the voice of God and thereby places himself above his fellow citizens.

In short, I hold that, even in a manifestly inadequate democracy, the individual is normally obliged to obey the laws but may, under extreme and limited circumstances, be required to break them.

[T]he question of tax refusal, on the grounds that the government is engaged in an immoral exercise and that tax payment would implicate the citizen in this guilt, is something else again. For there are indeed those who have… defended a “general theory of selective disobedience to law.” This extends the primacy of the individual moral judgment into political spheres where it has not been recognized in the past. So in terms of the general themes of this chapter it is a case eminently worth examining in some detail.

First of all, it is important to distinguish between the compulsion directed against a soldier, or even a protester enjoined from marching, and that exercised against a tax payer.

[The former cases are] much more immediate than the act of paying taxes. But even more to the point, the tax payer who believes the war to be immoral has a clear alternative open to him, one that he can pursue without heroic courage and through the exercise of normal democratic rights. In this he differs from the soldier, marcher, or sit-in activist. He can organize politically and change the government which administers the taxes. During the time that he is involved in this campaign he will not be commanded to do anything as decisive as taking another life; he will not be, through paying taxes, subjected to irreparable harm like the protest marcher; he will not be victimized by a mockery of the democratic process like the sit-in student of .

Second, the rationale for tax refusal usually rests upon the old economics… In the pre-Keynesian days, governments did indeed use tax bills as a means of raising revenues for specific purposes. But even then, there was more than a little deception involved: the bonds which Americans purchased to “buy” tanks, planes, hospital supplies, etc. in World War Ⅱ were primarily useful in controlling inflation. The military goods would have been produced whether the people purchased the bonds or not. Now, however, Washington has become more frank about its general tax strategy, though it still resorts to patriotic appeals and old-fashioned economics when that is politically convenient (as it has become for Mr. Johnson on the Vietnam question).

The size of the federal budget is now dictated by the general state of the Gross National Product. If the economy has excess capacity, Washington increases its spending in one way or another (through direct public investment, through a tax cut, etc.); if it is operating at full, or over-full, capacity, in theory the government is supposed to hold down demand either through cuts in spending (the favorite solution of the conservatives) or through an increase in taxes.

In this context, President Johnson’s proposal of a tax increase is, despite his politically motivated statements to the contrary, only tangentially related to the war in Vietnam and certainly not “necessary” to the prosecution of that conflict. If there is one certainty in American politics it is that Congress, in a united front of hawks and doves, will send sufficient military supplies to Americans in a shooting war. The real purpose of the tax increase is to act as a damper on the inflationary trends which the Administration economists have discerned.

Now it may rightly be said that these inflationary tendencies were given a considerable impetus by the war in Vietnam — but so was the employment of Negroes, and one would not oppose that. More to the point, if Congress refuses the tax increase, presumably to the cheers of at least some in the peace movement, the result will not be to bring the end of the war in Vietnam any closer but to place the main burden of that conflict on the black and white poor.

How blind can you be to think that some change in American tax policy would place the main burden of the Vietnam War on the black and white poor of America. This seems to be the meat of Harrington’s gripe: that to champion tax refusal means to side with those who would cut social spending over those who would raise taxes, so even if those taxes also pay for reprehensible war policies — well, if you periodically have to throw thousands of Vietnamese people under the bus to keep chugging along to the Great Society, so be it.

For in the political realities of , the real debate over the tax increase was a liberal-conservative antagonism over what groups should be required to sacrifice most in the fight against inflation. The Right proposed to deal with the problem through cut-backs in social welfare spending, the Left through the utilization of a highly imperfect tax instrument which, for all of its faults, is the most progressive means of fighting inflation the society possesses. Should the antiwar movement, having not yet succeeded in winning a political majority to put an end to the killing, adopt a tactic whose actual effect will be to tax the ghettos and the rural slums?…

Most of the people who have been attracted to the notion of tax refusal during the course of the Vietnam War would regard all the foregoing as mere sophistry. Their point of departure is not rational or political, but it is substantial and understandable. Tax paying is one of the few “personal” relationships which the middle-class citizen has with the government. Rightly outraged by a horrible war, many people seek desperately for some way that the individual can communicate his distress to the politicians and the IBM machines. And tax refusal is one of the few means at hand. I sympathize profoundly with those who have taken this position — but I cannot agree with them, and not simply for reasons of economic theory.

One should be careful, particularly in a democratic society, of proclaiming too many “Nuremburg” obligations. The Court of the victors which sat in judgment of the Nazis asserted a natural-law duty of resistance, and even heroic resistance, to clearly immoral military orders. But, and this is a very important point, the country at issue was Nazi Germany, i.e., a fascist dictatorship. Under such circumstances, I would certainly affirm the right of all citizens to civil disobedience and, for that matter, to the violent overthrow of their own government — and the citizen’s duty to refuse monstrous commands, even if that meant sacrificing life itself.

You can feel a “But” coming, right? “Under such circumstances [a Nazi dictatorship], I would certainly affirm… the citizen’s duty to refuse monstrous commands” but in a democracy like ours, imperfect though it may be, you must obey those monstrous commands like a good little citizen. Sure enough:

But the United States of is hardly Nazi Germany; the tax payer is not really being ordered to do anything more specific than to help in maintaining a boom; and there exist alternate methods of bringing the war to an end… Tax refusal may well be personally therapeutic and morally exhilarating; but it does not pass the supreme test, for it contributes little or nothing to ending the immoral war in Vietnam. If an individual feels conscientiously compelled to take this course, I would defend all of his civil liberties, but I cannot agree that he has either enunciated a binding obligation or formulated an effective tactic for bringing the killing to an end.

[In short,] the “Nuremberg” analogy — whereby direct and personal participation in the genocidal activities of a fascist dictatorship is equated with paying taxes for a tragic war undertaken by a relatively democratic society — is too loose to be compelling. Moreover, the very structural evolution of modern government, particularly on questions of fiscal policy, undermines the assumption that there is any relationship between a particular tax and a war policy. Therefore, there does not seem to be a good case for a duty of tax refusal, although individuals may make the tactical decision to engage in this form of protest as a form of witness. In the latter case, the debate over tax refusal is not principled, but rather will be concerned with the effectiveness of the witness. I personally do not think it is a very useful form of opposition mainly because it is almost inevitably restricted to the middle class.

So, in the end, not a very good critique, but it makes some stabs at good arguments and has the seeds of some potentially thoughtful critiques of tax resistance. Most criticisms of tax resistance fall into one of three categories: 1) it’s not ethical, 2) it’s not practical, 3) it’s not safe. Harrington’s critique sticks with the first two, and can be summarized in this way:

  1. Tax resistance isn’t ethical because the democratic process is precious and fragile and so except in extreme circumstances individuals should not permit their moral intuitions to override majority decisions. The feeling that one is complicit in evil by paying taxes to a democratic government that commits evil does not rise to this threshold.
  2. Tax resistance isn’t practical because there’s no real relationship between the government’s tax revenue and its capability to spend on war or other wicked activities.