How to Motivate Anti-War Activists to Stop Paying War Taxes

Lately I’ve been giving some thought to how to motivate anti-war activists to become war tax resisters, and specifically how to craft a message about war tax resistance that is influential and motivating.

War tax resisters have various opportunities to get a message out — sometimes indirectly through the news media, sometimes deliberately through advertisements and literature, sometimes in face-to-face conversation. In this, like in a lot of sports, there’s an offensive game and a defensive game, each of which requires different strategies.

The offensive game is all about knowing what message you want to get out, crafting it well, practicing it, and deploying it effectively. The defensive game is about anticipating questions and objections, listening carefully and actively to make sure you understand what the real concerns are, having good answers ready that address the concerns, and not getting thrown so far off-message that you get into a thicket and can’t get back out.

When crafting a message designed to encourage people to do something, you need to know what motivates people to make the choices they do. It seems to me that these motivating factors fall into three categories: needs, fears, and values.

Needs are concrete and immediate things — these can be stepping stones toward long-term goals, or simple necessities like food, shelter, security, love, and the like. Fears are pretty self-explanatory. Values are a little fuzzier. In the values category, I include long-term goals, dreams for the future, ideals, and also self-image, integrity, and ethics.

So to motivate somebody to do something, ideally you try to show them that doing it will give them something they need, protect them from something they fear, and be consonant with the values they hold and the person they want to think of themselves as being. You don’t necessarily need all three, but you may need as much of each as you can muster.

When the government tries to motivate people to pay taxes, they concentrate mostly on fears and values (it’s hard to convince someone that their needs are met by giving away their money). Fear is important: in this case, fears of IRS enforcement action, criminal penalties, social ostracism, financial troubles, and so forth. But values are even more important.

Economists consider tax compliance to be an irrational behavior. That is, the penalties for tax evasion are not severe or certain enough for it to be an economically rational decision not to try to evade your taxes. And yet, to a great extent, people willingly cough up what the government tells them to. Why?

The IRS Oversight Board asked a set of taxpayers that very question. Among the findings: When asked what factors are important to them when deciding to pay their taxes accurately and on-time, how motivating is fear of an audit? 35% said that was very important, 26% said somewhat, 35% said not very or not at all. How important is “personal integrity?” 76% said it was very important, another 15% said somewhat, and only 7% said it was not very or not at all important.

People pay their taxes because they identify taxpaying with being honest, with being fair, with being a good citizen, with their value system as a whole.

War tax resisters offer a second path to integrity. We are also motivated by wanting our behavior toward taxes to be aligned with our values. We need to communicate this. The more we speak about our values and how they motivate us to become tax resisters, the easier it is for people who share our values to imagine themselves living with integrity as tax resisters.

Fear is also important. When Bill Ramsey organized a survey of 1,100 anti-war activists who had never done tax resistance before, he asked them why they hadn’t. The number #1 answer: “Fear legal consequences.” Asked to list what they thought were the two most likely consequences of war tax resistance were, 31.6% listed jail time as one of them! Asked what was the one thing they most needed before they could consider tax resistance, the #1 answer: “clear idea of likely consequences.”

People imagine the consequences of tax resistance to be much more frightening and difficult than they are in reality. That’s a message we need to get across loud-and-clear. Not “tax resistance is perfectly safe” but this: there are many methods of tax resistance, with different levels and varieties of risk; you can learn these risks in advance, and take steps to mitigate them; the risks of well-planned tax resistance are much smaller than what you’ve probably come to expect; hardly anyone does any time behind bars for war tax resistance. And we need to be able to back this up with specifics, depending on who we’re talking with and what their particular goals and concerns are.

And while the IRS has a hard time motivating taxpayers by appealing to their needs, I think war tax resisters have a good angle. How many times have we heard anti-war activists say that they’re tired of going to marches and rallies and demonstrations and meetings — they want to do something, something practical, something that has a real effect. That’s a need, and war tax resistance is a way of meeting that need.

Moving to defense, there are certain concerns and questions that come up again and again when war tax resistance is discussed. And these, too, can be grouped roughly by the needs / fears / values categorization:

  • Is war tax resistance effective? (Needs) For instance:
    • Won’t the government just end up getting more money in the end, with interest & penalties?
    • How can one person refusing taxes have any effect on the vast military budget?
  • Is war tax resistance dangerous? (Fears) For instance:
    • Won’t the government throw me in jail or take my home if I refuse taxes?
    • If anti-war activists become tax resisters, won’t the government use this to crack down on dissent?
  • Is war tax resistance ethical? (Values) For instance:
    • Don’t we all have a responsibility to pay our fair share of taxes?
    • Why should I be able to decide on my own where a democracy spends my tax money?

In each of these cases, it can be useful when you answer to address not just the specific question or concern, but the whole category it represents. In other words, answer the specific question about tax resistance’s effectiveness at meeting some immediate need, but then append to your answer, “and one reason why I’m a war tax resister is because war tax resistance is a practical way of doing X, Y, and Z;” answer a specific question about values and then add something about how your war tax resistance expresses your values.

There are many ways to meet a question honestly. Sometimes, meeting it head-on and directly and answering it as-asked is the best way. Other times, it’s better to put the question into a larger context, or to address some of the assumptions behind the question. It can pay to practice meeting common questions in multiple ways.

There are some kinds of questions though, where the best policy is to evade and avoid. There are questions that lead into traps that keep you off-message and in a thicket of controversy. If you’re about to begin an answer that looks likely to end with you defending some particular political philosophy or Constitutional interpretation, pacifism, anarchism, what Jesus really meant, or the truth about what happened on 9/11 — take a deep breath and try another angle.

For example: Someone asks me “do you think everybody ought to be able to decide for themselves what their tax money is spent on?”

I could answer, “Yes, actually. I’m a free-market anarchist, and for some very good reasons, I think a society in which people made their own decisions about how to spend their money would be a big improvement on the current one. For instance…” and pretty soon I have to defend anarchism, free-market thinking, and I’m way off-message.

The question had a couple of purposes. The first was that it expresses a concern about whether tax resistance is an ethical thing to do. The second is more subtle, but involves the questioner searching for an excuse not to change his or her behavior to become a tax resister. The questioner hopes to show that I hold some particular dogma (anarchism, pacifism, whatever), that adhering to this dogma is an essential part of being a tax resister, and that therefore he or she doesn’t have to consider the possibility anymore since he or she doesn’t hold such views.

I could answer more like this: “Whether everyone ought to be able to spend their tax dollars as they choose or not, I can tell you that the war tax resisters I know spend their tax dollars a lot more fairly and wisely than Congress does. If war tax resisters were budgeting more money and Congress less, I think we’d all be breathing a lot easier. By taking personal responsibility for how my tax dollars are spent, I make sure that Congress isn’t spending them irresponsibly.”

Sometimes you can use comparisons and juxtapositions to put things into context:

  • “Anti-war protesters are willing to be arrested doing sit-ins and blockades, and risk jail time and fines. Why are the much smaller risks of war tax resistance so scary?”
  • “If people are willing to pay 20% interest on their credit cards to pay for Christmas presents, I think I can risk a few percentage points of interest and penalties to fight for what I think is right.”
  • “We want our Congressional representatives to take political risks by cutting off funding for the occupation, and I want to show that I’m willing to take risks as well.”

When you’re playing defense like this, look for opportunities to get back on offense. Keep in mind the message you want to convey, and keep looking for opportunities. Like in that alternate second example answer I gave to the question about whether people should be able to decide for themselves how to spend their taxes. In that answer, instead of launching into a defense of democracy or anarchism, I reiterated that war tax resisters are acting from motives of fairness and responsibility and concern for society — the same sort of shared values the government likes to promote as motives for tax-paying.

Switching to offense is especially important when you’re trying to get your message out through the news media. Don’t let the reporter’s questions drive the agenda. Take charge and put your message front-and-center. You’re not out to try to convince the reporter to be a tax resister. Cooperate with the reporter by delivering your message in pithy, well-practiced soundbites that will be easily packaged. If you’re giving a telephone interview, write some key phrases down ahead of time so you can be ready to rattle them off when the right moment comes:

  • …deliberate, practical, and has bottom-line results…
  • …I want to be at ease with my conscience…
  • …I feel responsible for what I do with my money…
  • …I feel more honest now when I say I don’t support the war…
  • …time to put my money where my mouth is…
  • …in Washington, money talks…
  • …I used to just disapprove of the war, now I oppose it…
  • …direct action I do all year ’round…

I think war tax resisters have what frustrated anti-war activists need — they just don’t know it yet. If we can learn how to get this message across, the war tax resistance movement will grow, and the anti-war movement will become more energized and effective.