Today, another tax resistance essay from the MANAS archives.
This one comes from the pen of Milton Mayer, also the author of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, , which has been frequently quoted and excerpted in recent years by worried Americans who notice the U.S. falling down the same damn hole.
This essay is particularly good, I think, both in its rhetoric and in its attitude. I can’t say that I agree with him when he says that “the point is the smile” — in other words, that what matters is the change in attitude and posture that tax resistance represents, and not the practical withholding of money — but in many ways he seems to articulate what I have felt as I have tried to withhold cooperation from the government and have tried to justify and advocate this to others.
I was a spavined old man of forty-three (this was ten years ago) when I realized that my Government was unlikely ever again to order me to pick up a gun and kill a man who has never offended me and who had been ordered by his Government to pick up a gun and kill me; each of us subject, if he disobeyed the order, to being set upon by his own Government. The last time my Government ordered me to perpetrate this abomination — for such it may be seen to be, on its very face — was in .
On that occasion I had said No (as who wouldn’t, to such a preposterous demand?) and the Government retired in instant confusion. I had not expected that it would stand up to me like a man; rather, I had expected it to use its brute force on me. But I appeared to have taken it by surprise. Governments taken by surprise hasten to reclassify, supposing by this device they may escape their predicament. Mine reclassified me.
It reclassified me as “indispensable war worker” because I was beating my gums in the lower depths of the one remaining peaceable division of a university engaged in a great secret war project. (The university’s motto was, Let Knowledge Grow from More to More, that Human Life May Be Enriched; and by , its knowledge had grown to the point where it was able to enrich human life in Hiroshima.)
When I saw that all a man had to do was say No to send the Government headlong, I lost my fear of it. I had long since lost my respect for it, as any man necessarily must for any such organization, be it Murder Inc. or Murder United. But the Government found other men to do its sorry work, and enough of them, I suppose, because it did not come near me again; not even in , when it enacted universal peacetime conscription (which Woodrow Wilson had called “the root evil of Prussianism”). It sent me a classification card again, and I sent it back with a letter of regret and heard nothing more.
Others may have had another sort of experience with Government, or with Governments more purposeful than mine, but mine convinces me that Government, whatever it means to be, good government or bad, is something of a humbug. The good things it pretends to do are done by men — by free men, and even by slaves — and the one thing it is specifically designed to do, and always promises to do, it never does, namely, keep the peace.
A humbug and, like all humbugs, a fourflusher. A few years ago I was invited to Hungary on a religious mission. My American passport forbade me — quite tyrannically — to go to Hungary. But my American Constitution forbade the Government to interfere with my religion. As between the passport and the Constitution, I held with the Constitution and so informed the Government before I went. The Government waited until I got back and then threatened to take my passport away from me, and thus make me a prisoner of my own country, unless I immediately swore that I would never again disobey its regulations present and future. Again, all I had to do was say No. My religion forbade me to swear at all and my Americanism forbade me to agree to obey anybody’s future regulations, and I said so. The Government ran away at once.
There remained one matter in respect of which I felt that the Government needed a really good licking and would not behave itself until it had one. That was money. If men for its abominations were, as it seemed, a dime a dozen, it wanted only to get the dime to get the men. I might be palsied and arthritic, but I could still hand over the dime and the Government would let me go my windbroken way. As long as I went on giving it its annual allowance, I could no more expect it to mend its ways than I could a reprobate son. I had to say No to the dime and see what happened.
The Government was even then — this was — on a shooting spree and I was financing the spree. It was ordering men to kill other innocent men and burn down their shanties, and I was buying it the men. I was paying others to do what I would never do myself or, indeed, countenance in others in any other circumstances. This couldn’t go on.
Such were my reflections when, that same season, in a German town, I saw the ruins of a hospital in which eighty-five people, their eyes bound after surgery, were burned up blind when a bomber missed the railroad station. I realized that my notion of war as two innocent men ordered to kill one another was a little refined. War meant killing people in hospitals, including whatever Jews in Germany Hitler had overlooked.
This really couldn’t go on. I notified the Government that I was cutting it off without a nickel of my dime until it straightened up. It was spending at least half of its allowance on criminal debauchery and I did not see how I could be a God-fearing American and go on paying its upkeep.
Taxes are inevitable. So is death. But suicide isn’t inevitable. I intend to die unwillingly and without giving death any help. The inevitability of any evil is not the point; the point is my subornation of it. Why should I, on receipt of the Government’s demand for money to kill the innocent, hurry as fast as I can to comply?
My neighbor says that the Government will take the money anyway, by force and violence and other lawful means. He is right, but what’s that to me? If a robber ties me up and robs me, I have not become a robber. If the wicked Russians kill me and my little ones in my (or at least in my little ones’) innocence, I have not become a killer. I have become a killer only if I kill wicked Russians (or, more likely, their wicked little ones).
My neighbor says that my refusal to pay half the tax begs the question, since the Government will use half of what I do pay to kill the innocent and, in the end, with interest and penalties, get more from me than if I had paid the whole tax with a smile. Agreed. But the point is unaffected; the point is the smile.
I am told that the Government doesn’t need my piddling nickel to get on with its abominations. Agreed again. But I need it. The year I first refused to pay it, the tax came to $33.94. I could buy myself a champagne supper with $33.94. Or I could send it to the American Friends Service Committee, which could buy 1,697 dinners with it for hungry children in Orissa Province in India. One way or another, the Government doesn’t need the $33.94, and I do; and its characterization of the amount, when I went to court for it, as “this small tax” was contumelious.
Of course the Government can get along without my money. If it gets less from me, or none, it will get more from my neighbor. Or more from me, then less from him. It will get the money and buy the guns and give them to the Portuguese to defend democracy against the Russians by killing the innocent in Angola. Good enough. I am not the government; I haven’t the power to put a stop to the abomination, but only to put a stop to my being willing to perpetrate it myself.…
If I need not pay my taxes because I am squeamish about the killing of men, then, says my neighbor, the vegetarian need not pay his for inspection of the killing of animals, etc., and, in the end, no one need pay his taxes for anything he doesn’t much fancy, and this is Anarchy. My neighbor is not alone in saying it. When the Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing my complaint against the Government, one of the Judges said to my learned counsel, “Is the plaintiff aware that this Court, if it held for him, would itself be laying the axe to the root of all established Government?” And learned counsel said, “I think he is, Your Honor.”
Is a man who is worth anything at all to be diverted from positive horrors by putative horrors? I have no primary obligation to save established Government from the axe, but to save myself from the fire. I will pay for the conveniences of Government, including those conveniences I don’t use. I will pay for its inconveniences, because prudence dictates that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. But why should I pay for its madness — or my neighbor’s, if you will — because the madness is established? All the more reason for cutting it off at once; all the more. The Government is anarchical, not I. It, not I, denies the kingdom of God and throws its anarchical bombs into the midst of the family of man.
I am not first of all a doctor of political philosophy, with no better business than to set terms like Anarchy in order (though I may say that if there were only one other term, and that Slavery, I, like Locke’s judicious Hooker, would know how to order the two). I am first of all a man; not much of a man, and getting no better; but still a man, born with a set of terms to live by and an instinctive apprehension of their validity. My neighbor says “Anarchy” as if he were affirming the Eleventh Commandment instead of denying the Second and the Sixth. He wags his head and says that there is no other way than established Government — or even than this established Government — to manage human affairs.
Who said that human affairs are manageable? — Not I. Perhaps they aren’t. They do not seem to be just now, nor for a long time since. If they aren’t, then a man who may not live until they are must manage his affairs as best he can. The burden of proving manageability is on the managers or, as they are known in election year, the rascals. Neither my neighbor nor the rascals can relieve me of my responsibility by thumbing through their index of terms and threatening me with Anarchy.
But all this is by the bye. I do not mean to argue Pacifism here (another of my neighbor’s terms). I mean to abide by the Aesculapian oath to do good if possible, but in no case to do harm, whether or not the doctors of medicine (or of political philosophy) abide by it. And if I can not once in a while try to be righteous without succeeding in being self-righteous, I am sorry that I am offensive and that my neighbor is diverted by the offense.
My neighbor is forever saying that the situation is pretty bad (or at least hopeless) and asking, “But what can one man do?” He means to answer his own question with, “Nothing.” I tell him what one man can do, almost nothing, perhaps, but not quite nothing, and do at no more effort than it takes to keep his golf clubs polished. But when I tell him, he says, “But one man is ineffective.”
I know that one man is ineffective. I know that Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were ineffective. They all hated war — so they said, and I believed and believed them — and they all made war. I hear that John F. Kennedy, as President, is the prisoner of his position. And these men are managers, and my neighbor and I are not even managers. How, then, should one of us be effective? But one of us can try to do the right thing, all by himself, and, maybe, even be effective. The United Nations has not been able to disarm the world by one man; I, all by myself, can be more effective than it has been.
“But someone must take the responsibility for Society.” Is there no other way than public preferment to take responsibility for Society? If there is none, a man may have to be irresponsible. Too bad; but not as bad as being responsible for the offenses the men-turned-Government are obliged to commit in Society’s name. Society, grumbling at the offenses, but assenting to them, has compelled me to choose between a bad course and a worse.
Thoreau imagined a State which would recognize the individual as a higher and independent power. He may have been whimsical then. He would be much more whimsical now. Two victorious world wars for democracy have not extended democracy even among the citizens of the victorious nations. Two victorious world wars for democracy have extended, not the black man’s, but all men’s enslavement to war and its preparation.
The State that Thoreau, so whimsically in his time, so much more so in ours, imagined “would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.” Some of us who once pitied the Forgotten Man would like ourselves to be forgotten now, but the State insists upon remembering us each and several; not, to be sure, as men, but as cards to be slipped soundlessly into a computer. But when one of the cards does not slip soundlessly out the other end, the computer may not know, for a moment, what to do, and so, for a moment, do nothing. The only thing a man — a man, not a card — can do now is obstruct and pray for obstruction.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Mr. Kennedy spoke these words at his inaugural, I knew that I was at odds with a Society which did not immediately rebel against them. They are the words of totalitarianism pure; no Jefferson could have spoken them, and no Khrushchev could have spoken them better. Could a man say what Mr. Kennedy said and also say that the difference between us and them is that they believe that man exists for the State and we believe that the State exists for man? He couldn’t, but he did. And in doing so, he read me out of society.
This good man, and the good men around him, can neither do good themselves nor allow me to do good if I would. They are all of them prisoners of their position — prisoners already of the Government which tries to imprison me. I offered to give the Government all the money it wanted, no matter how much it wanted, if it would use it to help my countrymen. My country’s children needed schools. Its old people needed medical care for want of which I (with my own eyes, as my mother would say) had seen them die.
But the Government wouldn’t hear of these needs. They were all beyond its capacity — the capacity of the Government of the richest nation in history. So straitened, indeed, is the Government’s capacity to help men, at home or abroad, that it is constrained to notify the children of Orissa Province in India that they either have to make war on “our” side or starve.*
Shall we say “Yes” to a Government, no matter what it asks of us? If so, men are freer in Prague than they are at home; and this would seem strange unless you hold that ours is a Government that, unlike any Government that ever was before, never asks anything of us. Our government is certainly better than many in many respects, but in the one respect of mortal wrong, the killing of the innocent, it is identical with all the rest. There is something to practice’s making perfect. I may say, “I would say No to Communism,” or, “I would have said No to Nazism.” But if I cannot say “No” to a Government whose pains are light, what makes me think I would say “No” to a Government whose pains are heavier?
It is excruciatingly easy for me to say “No” to Communism, and I say it. I would not rather be red than dead; I would rather be neither. But I would rather be either than have the blood of the innocent on my hands. Wouldn’t you? The Russians will have to answer to their Government’s abominations, you and I only to ours. What our Government requires of you and me, in our dotage, is only that we give it the money to buy the gun and hire the man to carry it. What say you?
The world may end next week, or next year, and the last flash will light up the darkness in which we stumble now. We shall be able to see then, in an instant, that the Government, like us, wasn’t itself very good or very bad but only, like us, enchanted, and, in its enchantment, like us in ours, turned everything it touched to iron. Between now and then we shall none of us change our wonted ways very much or very fast, and we should not expect to. But then, in the last flash, instead of saying, “What little can I do?” we shall say, “What little could I have done?”
* “It is my belief that in the administration of these (foreign aid) funds we should give great attention and consideration to those nations which have our view of the world crisis.” ―President Kennedy (Newsweek, ).