Chris Hedges Pledges to Refuse to Pay Taxes; Internet Commenters Respond

The Chris Hedges article in which he declared he would start resisting his federal income tax if the U.S. goes to war against Iran has generated a lot of buzz.

Last I checked: On The Nation’s site, there are twenty “web letters” as they call them. On the CBS News site where the article was reprinted, there were 61 comments. Over at AlterNet there were 253 comments.

Today I scanned through these comments, looking for objections that fit the pattern of: “Tax resisters’ hearts are in the right place, but I don’t think tax resistance is a good idea because…”

These fall roughly into the categories of concerns about tax resistance I discussed : Is tax resistance effective? Is it dangerous? Is it ethical?

  • Effective?
    • “The likelihood that your war tax resistance would bear fruit is nil. The likelihood that a widespread war tax resistance movement would be spawned is similarly nil.”
    • “…you would never subsequently have the ability to influence most people on a moral or even organizational basis… except perhaps intimately.”
    • “If you are choosing that monk-hood, do it. But, please don’t conflate that to the level of effective social change.”
    • “…the left continues to marginalize itself through righteous but ultimately divisive protest action. A majority of Americans currently agree that the war in Iraq is wrong and that starting another one just like it in Iran would also be wrong; we don’t need publicity stunts, we need to build on the consensus. But a sure way to undermine this consensus will be to take action that drives away those folks who might agree with your position but do not subscribe to your brand of political saintliness; hawks and their pundits would have a field day with the narrative that the ‘liberal tax hikers’ are now refusing to pay their own taxes.”
    • “I am not sure what the effect would be if you didn’t pay your taxes considering the economic collapse that would follow a war with Iran, but, go for it!”
    • “…presuming that our government is illegitimate, is a tax gesture the extent of your patriotism? Why not armed rebellion?”
    • “If the USA attacks Iran you’re not gona pay your taxes? Why after the attack? Why not before the attack? So you’re not gonna pay your taxes because you think that’s gonna do or mean, what? I don’t get your point.”
    • “Doesn’t anybody here have an ordinary job with a W-2? No wonder hardly anybody on the left gives a sh*t about the working class anymore.”
    • “Simply put, if you don’t pay your taxes and the IRS takes it directly from your paycheck, what’s that’s supposed to have accomplished?”
    • “That [technique] was anticipated a long time ago. That’s why the majority of have a portion of our incomes withheld every pay period.”
    • “[Thoreau] spent one night in jail. He didn’t object when Emerson paid his fine for him & sprang him. (Wasn’t the fine supporting slavery?) At any rate his gesture was widely regarded, even by hardcore abolitionists, as futile and silly.”
    • “I’d love to and who knows if millions of people stood up and did, then it might be worth it, but the odds are that maybe a dozen or so will. So, it’s a great sentiment, but one that ultimately proves nothing.”
    • “[the military is] funded by debt, so this tax stuff doesn’t matter anyway!”
    • “Bush doesn’t need taxes for Iran — he’s already financing the war in Iraq with hundreds of billions in debt.”
    • “I doubt anything would really change for the simply reason ‘good’ people do not want to rock the boat.””
    • “If the U.S. attacks Iran, the economy will dive so badly you couldn’t afford to pay taxes anyway.”
    • “If everyone does not pay their taxes I doubt it will prevent them from attacking Iran or stop the attack once it has started.”
    • “In the unlikely event a large part of the population was to become angry enough to take action, lacking any kind of ideology as a driving force, all you’d get is mass chaos.”
    • “This idea sounds good on paper. Unfortunately I don’t think it would work. The IRS can garnish wages and raid existing bank accounts for money owed to them. I don’t see why an escrow account would offer any protection — they’d just take it.”
    • “The problem with economic disobedience is that its literally a drop in the bucket. Remember that the government gets a very large chunk of its war-mongering blood money from sales taxes and fees the multinational bankers pay while throwing our money away on bad business bets (thanks Fed…)”
    • “if bush attacks iran, there won’t be much left to pay taxes on.”
    • “…they do not need your taxes. The Gov’t can print all the money they want.”
  • Dangerous?
    • “…the police forces in the US have become so oppressive, they would almost certainly pull some kind of post Katrina martial law out of their sleeve.”
    • “…having had the IRS up my butt in the past I’m not willing to subject my family to being driven to the brink of bankruptcy again, sorry.”
    • “I too know just what the IRS can ‘legally’ do to citizens of this country even if they’ve made an honest mistake. Can’t imagine the dogs they’d sic on us if we tried to intentionally withhold our taxes.”
    • “Americans would rather help dump a dead body than instigate the IRS into looking at them.”
    • “Promoting non-payment of federal income taxes can easily be classified as an ‘extremist ideology’ by the feds, so under the John Warner Defense Appropriation Act of , any person so advocating could be rounded up by federal troops acting on the say-so of Darth Bushit and put into one of those shiny new concentration camps.”
    • “As to not paying ones income tax, I say one should because of health issues. One would pay it for the same reason one pays a mafia boss who threatens ones your life/livelihood. Cough up or live with the consequences.”
    • “If you don’t pay your income taxes one or more of several things will happen: A) They might not notice. (Happens. God help you when and if they do notice. Penalties and interest will add up so fast, they will make your head spin.) B) They will take all your stuff and/or throw you in jail. With effective legal representation, you may stay out of jail — but what the IRS doesn’t get the lawyers will.”
    • “not paying your taxes [means] having the goons destroy your life (easier 4 them if your not a rich celebrity)”
    • “…most people have bought into the system and are afraid of the IRS. Rightfully so! The IRS is a Gestapo-like organisation that operates special ‘tax courts’ and assumes you are guilty and you must prove your innocence— contrary to hundreds of years of Anglo-American jurisprudence.… ps: I do not advocate any crime and my statement are for entertainment and argument only (got that Echelon)?”
    • “Personally until the laws regarding being able to declare any American citizen an enemy combatant and with the resultant loss of rights and in all probability ‘Disappearing’ are changed back to protecting the citizens and not the corporations and presidency, I’m just not gonna take the chance.”
    • “If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll rot in prison with many others who’ve tried the same form of self-serving ‘protest.’ … not paying taxes will get your door burst in, get you tased and imprisoned…”
  • Ethical?
    • “The likelihood that if you adopted war tax resistance, you would engage in similar legal shenanigans and rationalizations for criminality and privilege as large corporate greed-driven criminals is great, though obviously on a much smaller scale.”
    • “What a brilliant idea. If the government does something you don’t like in one area, refuse to pay any taxes for anything. I’m sure the schools don’t mind. They’re obviously culpable too. And the highway repair bills, nope, don’t pay those. And every other thing the government does. Nope, just don’t pay any taxes.”
    • “I guess you would think it perfectly okay if, say, an anti-abortion zealot refused to pay taxes. The principle is idiotic.”
    • “I do not agree with your idea of the general public’s complicity in this war. There is a limit to complicity and I suggest it stops where the public has no voice and no representation.”
    • “Do you really want anti-abortion fanatics, for example, to use the same tactic? Or for that matter, do you really want pro-war people to use the same tactic? What’s to stop them?”
    • “There’s no stopping point to this, you know. For example, I live in Massachusetts — do I want the Catholic League kooks refusing to pay their state taxes as a protest against gay marriage, or abortion? No. Where do you draw the line? At the political issues you personally think are ‘nice’? It doesn’t work.”
    • “It’s a crazy idea, and one designed more for right-wing nutjobs. Remember, they often have more money to tax than we do.”
    • “Suppose a pro-war citizen wanted to protest the fact that Bush hasn’t yet bombed Iran? There must be at least one, for a test case. You’ve established the principle — what’s to stop him?”
    • “How ya gonna tell people to break the law because the government is unjust? That is the exact problem with the people in the White House; they think there is something especially human about them; it puts them above the law.”
    • “Why not pay the half of your taxes that don’t go to the war? Are you protesting disaster relief, flood control programs, aid to veterans, etc? Will you refuse federal aid if your property is destroyed by wildfires or floods? Will you set foot in a library or drive on a federal highway?”
  • Multiple categories
    • “It seems a good idea, to refuse to pay income tax to a government that has gotten completely out of hand. I have two questions. What would it really accomplish? And will I have to go to jail?”
    • “You’re advocating a course that is unrealistic, ineffectual and expensive to anyone who tries it.”
    • “I think ‘hitting them where it hurts’ is a good idea but not paying your taxes is a bad one. After all the govt. can and will eventually come after you if you do not pay your taxes.”

I haven’t listed the objections from people in the jingo camp, nor from the inevitable “you don’t have to pay taxes because there is no law…” people. I also haven’t listed the many supportive or tangential comments, or the objections in the form of “what we really should do is [Impeach Bush / not drive cars on Thursdays / switch to the gold standard / vote for Kucinich / etc.].”

This sample is biased by being generated mostly from the sort of people who like to engage in web site comment threads, but you gotta work with the data you can get ahold of…

In the effectiveness category, there seem to be several themes:

  • It’s hopeless, the world is going to hell, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Tax resistance won’t work either. (No specific complaint, just a general hopelessness)
  • Tax resistance won’t work. (Just an assertion, without specifics)
  • When the government gets through seizing your assets and adding penalties and interest, they’ll end up with even more of your money in the end, so tax resistance is counter-productive.
  • The United States government is already on a collision course with bankruptcy (that will only be accelerated by new wars) and so tax resistance is superfluous.
  • The government doesn’t need our taxes to fund its wars, as it can just print money or borrow from China or take money from “sales taxes and fees the multinational bankers pay,” so tax resistance is beside-the-point.
  • Tax resistance is an insufficient gesture — it’s time for something more dramatic (armed rebellion or some such).
  • How can you resist taxes if they’re withheld from your paycheck?
  • Tax resistance will only be effective if millions do it.
  • If you resist taxes, you will become less effective as an activist (perhaps because resisting taxes will take time & energy that could be better-used).
  • Tax resistance is too extreme, and opponents of your position will use your tax resistance to marginalize and mock you, making you less persuasive.

In the risks category, there are a surprising number of people who think the United States has become so frightfully totalitarian that any resistance is too scary to contemplate. The French Resistance at least had a fighting chance, Sakharov could smuggle his books out to be published abroad, but by gum if you stop paying your taxes in America you might as well just fasten the straps, ship yourself to Guantanamo, and waterboard yourself to spare the Attorney General the trouble. I’m amazed, actually, at how often I get this sort of response, even from people running booths at anti-war rallies.

To this is added a heaping dose of exaggeration about the power and fury of the IRS. If you resist taxes, according to this mythology, the government will hound you, audit all of your returns, ruin your life, take everything you own that you didn’t have to pay to lawyers in a futile attempt to save yourself, and then you’ll rot behind bars.

In the ethics category come these arguments:

  • Tax resistance is a variety of tax evasion: a dishonest shirking of every citizen’s duties.
  • Tax resistance to protest war paints with too-broad a brush: taxes pay not only for wars, but for schools, highways, disaster recovery, etc.
  • The logic by which you say you’ll refuse to pay taxes if the government does something you don’t like could also be used by people who disagree with you. What would you say to somebody who refused to pay taxes because they don’t like your favorite government expenditure, or indeed because they think we’re not going to war fast enough against enough people?
  • Tax resistance won’t reduce your complicity in the war because paying taxes does not contribute to such complicity in the first place.
  • We shouldn’t be encouraging people to break the law, since what we really need to do is to get the government itself to start behaving lawfully.

Many of these objections are just factually inaccurate and perhaps can be best met by just setting out the facts. It’s impossible to resist because taxes are withheld from your paycheck? Actually, no, you just have to file a new W-4. The IRS will throw you in jail if you refuse to pay your taxes? Not bloody likely.

Other objections are more emotional or philosophical and probably can’t be answered effectively in such a direct manner. A number of these objections strike me as excuse-making from people who have no intention of being persuaded out of their comfort zone. If I hear someone explain why they aren’t going to be a tax resister and it’s all about how tax resistance won’t be effective until there are millions of people doing it and besides the American People won’t be sympathetic and anyway the government won’t pay any attention… I usually just figure I’m talking to someone who’s comfortably timid and isn’t going to stick their neck out for anything, so I move on and try to persuade someone else.

Still other objections are, I think, more-or-less effective challenges against particular forms of tax resistance, or against particular arguments for tax resistance, and have to be taken seriously. War tax resisters who support taxes and government programs in general do need to be able to explain why the government should be able to force other people to pay for their favorite programs, but war tax resisters should have the right to opt out. Tax resisters who justify their resistance by saying it reduces the amount of their money that goes to the government do need to explain whether they would consider their tax resistance to have failed if the government seizes their money with interest and penalties and thereby ends up with even more in the end (and if not, why not).

In any case, for tax resisters to persuade others to be sympathetic to our position (or to join us), we need to be able to anticipate these objections and have good answers at-the-ready.