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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
submit requests to a committee for review. Documentation must include a copy
collection form, [and] a copy of their original letter of conscience to
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.
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
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
seizure of property, and the ongoing civil disobedience in Colrain — shone
clear. In an atmosphere of the best the law has to offer, the
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.
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
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
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.