How to Trick the People into Relinquishing Political Power

How do you prevent the mob from installing a democracy by force of numbers? Somehow you have to get them to agree to a constitution that limits their power, and it isn’t immediately obvious why they would agree to such a thing. In chapter ⅹⅲ of book Ⅳ of the Politics, Aristotle introduces five techniques the oligarchy can use to pull the wool over the people’s eyes in order to withhold power from them.

Aristotle
  1. You can make all citizens eligible for the Assembly, but only make it obligatory for the rich (in other words, only the rich will be fined for failure to attend).
  2. You can permit the poor to decline to take office if they declare under oath that they cannot afford to leave their regular jobs to do so, while denying this privilege to the rich.
  3. You can similarly arrange to not attach fines to poor people who fail to show up for jury duty, or can adjust those fines so that the cost to the poor is only nominal.
  4. Or, on the other hand, you can attach large fines for people who are registered to vote in the Assembly and serve on a jury but who fail to do those duties, but not fine people who fail to register in the first place.
  5. You can fine the rich people for failing to maintain arms and attend physical training, but waive those fines for the poor.

These policies have the appearance of granting extra privileges to the poor or exempting them from penalties or service, and so they are popular, but they have the effect of increasing the political power of the rich, and so favor the oligarchy.

Democracies have their own tricks to increase the power of the ordinary people. For instance they may pay a small salary to those who serve in the Assembly or on a jury, rather than penalizing those who don’t serve, which makes those positions more attractive to the poor than to the rich.

These are some of the policy knobs and dials you can tweak in order to adjust how much power your constitution gives to the populace vs. the oligarchy.

One policy that Aristotle recommends is to restrict citizenship to those in the militia. This, in his time, was also a de facto property qualification, as members of the militia had to bring their own weapons and other supplies, which not everyone could afford.

The mass of poor people, Aristotle says, are typically pretty content even if they do not have much political power, as long as those with political power don’t mistreat or exploit them (though he says those with political power have a hard time resisting the temptation to do so).


The Wendell Post, a cute, typewriter-layout-style zine that covered the scene in Wendell, Massachusetts for several years, not infrequently featured articles on war tax resisters. The following example, an article by Floyd Borakove, comes from its issue:

Penalty Fund For Tax Refusal

Wendell may be unique in the high concentration of war tax resisters. War tax resisters’ techniques vary from intentionally keeping their income below the taxable level to openly refusing all Federal tax. Many of us have experienced the collection of penalties and interest. At times these penalties and interest amount to a great burden and makes it more difficult for our witness.

In the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund was started by members and friends of the North Manchester Fellowship of Reconciliation. The founders invited sympathetic people to form a broad base that would help sustain and support war tax resisters.

Resisters needing assistance with interest and penalties which have already been collected by IRS submit requests to a committee for review. Documentation must include a copy of the IRS collection form, [and] a copy of their original letter of conscience to IRS or Congress. Approximately three times per year the committee combines requests for reimbursement and sends out an appeal to all names on their mailing list. The fund does not reimburse any taxes collected, just the penalties and interest. For example, if the requests totaled $2000 and the fund has 500 names they ask participants to send $4.00 ea[ch]. To date the fund has reimbursed over $50,000 to more than 100 war tax resisters in 24 states.

The War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund is still in operation today.

The second example comes from the issue:

Post Staffer In Jail

(paper comes unglued)

Stephen Broll is behind bars, the latest of a goodly number of Wendell citizens who have been jailed in recent months for vigiling in Colrain. The Wendell father, teacher, Post staffer, and war tax refuser violated parole on a conviction of “wanton destruction of property.” (He had helped repair — not destroy — the roof of the Colrain house seized by the IRS from Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, but the roofing work was without authorization from its new inhabitants.)

His parole violation was in keeping with the theme of nonviolent tax refusal that has been a large part of his life for the past dozen years or more: vigiling last summer against a court injunction, “too near” the Colrain house with other protesters, then refusing to leave when warned to by police. Also convicted with him for that episode of nonviolent expression of belief were Bob Bady, Michael Klein, and Vince O’Connor.

A domino-arrangement of court and administrative decisions now keeps Randy and Betsy out of their house. There’s a chance this latest injunction will be struck down by the same legal processes that issued it, once the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly are weighed more carefully against the new occupants’ disputed claims to the land — owned by the land trust — which Steve and his companions were vigiling on. Meanwhile, for their dubious crime and the parole violation it represented, Steve and Bob started serving 15-day sentences on .

A patient and procedurally liberal judge, brought in from another jurisdiction, heard the trial. This removed the tension of a heavy court schedule. As the arresting officers testified, and as Steve and his codefendants spoke, the elements of the growing knot of issues — war tax refusal itself, the IRS’s seizure of property, and the ongoing civil disobedience in Colrain — shone clear. In an atmosphere of the best the law has to offer, the IRS’s reliance on threat and obedience stood in a kind of contrast. There is no provision for conscience in the realm of federal income taxation. My mind wandered as I wondered: does it injure all people to define pacifists as outlaws? Does this represent the sort of aggression against the spirit that precipitates physically violent crimes — child abuse and drive-by shootings, to name the current showcased symptoms? The Selective Service has provisions for conscience; why not the Internal Revenue Service? Money has the curious effect of “laundering” conscience; maybe that’s why the American people haven’t insisted on a Peace Tax Fund.

In that courtroom, the hidden essence of our governmental/legal system showed itself to be distrust and delegation of authority — kind of a Cold War against the conscience — and while some of us felt it, and even saw the hint of an alternative right in that courtroom, I think others had to fight not to.

The IRS, by failing to recognize that land trust property is not the usual kind of property that can be simply bought and sold with a direct exchange of money and pieces of paper, made a big mistake in seizing this particular property in its showcase action. Defendant Vince O’Connor made it clear that the question of who has the right to control the land around the house is, at the very least, an unsettled question, injunction or no injunction. The presiding judge had to rather lamely pass the buck by saying the copy of the injunction he held was a “certified copy” — therefore legal. He couldn’t question the merits of the injunction, he said.

Even if a court someday upholds that injunction — or confirms the IRS seizure and auction of the house as well as the leasehold — the question will remain, in a space beyond legalism: if a land trust is created specifically to introduce stability into property use and ownership, by requiring transactions to take more than just a willing buyer and a willing seller, can even a branch of the federal government override it? Many land trusts are created to modify the excesses of the free market; by what authority may the government smash them?

Finally, Steve’s court case spotlighted the ratcheting-up of the drama between our authoritarian tax system and people who simply ask to be allowed to live free with their consciences intact. The law enforcement apparatus finds itself having to choose between disobeying its own strictures and locking up for ever-increasing periods of time people expecting/demanding to be permitted to live less violent lives. State police and courts are apparently learning to accept the sincerity of this dogged new kind of tax “criminal” in Colrain; there are no fire hoses or Mace attacks. It’s impossible to predict, but maybe some real gains are being made here in Western Massachusetts to bring authority back home, shifting toward personal and away from delegated risk, toward the inner and away from the institutional… toward a more complete society of more completely functioning (and deeply non-violent) people like my friend Steve Broll.

Jonathan von Ranson