Tax Resistance Appropriate Response to A-Bomb Terror

In a back issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (), I found a letter-to-the-editor about tax resistance that harmonizes well with a lot of the approaches I take to the subject here (link). Excerpts:

In issue after issue of the Bulletin, we read wonderfully prescriptive articles and letters on the logic and necessity of various disarmament steps. Many exploratory steps that might be taken unilaterally by the United States with no military risk are described in detail and with passionate conviction. The writers often end with the proviso: “We must now find the political will to take this step.”

“We must,” “we can,” “we should” — who is this ubiquitous “we” the writers always place in the active role? Congress is cowardly, the press obsequious, and Ronald Reagan will agree to a test ban when, as Khrushchev put it, “shrimp learn to whistle.”

If we are truly serious about challenging the dangers described monthly in this magazine, serious about pushing back the hands of the Bulletin clock, and not just indulging in righteous chit-chat, we must be willing to consider new methods of changing national policy. What might be considered extreme today may soon be seen as “too little, too late,” given the danger we face and the desperation to which others may soon be driven in their frustration with current goals and tactics.

Our views about goals and tactics do change with time: Women could not have achieved voting rights without some suffragettes going to jail. Unions were once illegal and persecuted; they could not have gotten justice for workers without the power of the strike. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have gotten civil rights legislation without a bus boycott and lunch counter sit-ins.

To think that saving our world from nuclear annihilation will require less of us is ostrich-like foolishness! To think that we can protest effectively while continuing to pay the government whose policies we know are so viciously destructive is a tragic and costly self-deception.

In his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau mentions only one form of noncooperation with illegitimate government activity: refusal to pay taxes. I suggests that all readers refresh their acquaintance with that essay and ask themselves whether it does not exactly describe the imperative of our times.

The author of this letter was Joel Taunton from something called “Citizens’ Tax Moratorium.”

In the eighth section of the third book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says there are five things that are often mistaken for courage:

  1. Not really courageous is the behavior of soldiers in the organized military who are motivated by penalties for disobedience, by hope of honors, or by fear of shame at being caught acting cowardly. As Aristotle has explained, courageous deeds are not motivated by such things as this, but by a love of courageousness itself.
  2. Also not really exhibiting courage are those who are less fearful in some situation because they are more experienced or skillful and so are better able to judge the nature of the dangers and what the proper response is. This is like the “sailors on a storm-tossed sea” example he gave a couple of sections back.
  3. People who act bravely while in the throes of a passion, or boiling anger, or a sudden fight-or-flight crisis are also not exhibiting courage, but only “something akin to courage.”
  4. People who are sanguine, that is they have been lucky or fortunate in past actions and so they are confident now, may not really be exhibiting courage although they may appear to be. Drunk people are sometimes confident like this. It’s easy to show courage when things are going your way; a really brave person is brave when the chips are down, or when danger comes on unexpectedly.
  5. People who are ignorant of the danger and therefore overconfident without reason are, for similar reasons to those who are sanguine, also not really exhibiting courage.

These exceptions emphasize that to be courageous in Aristotle’s sense,

  • you need to be motivated primarily by your love for courageousness as an honorable thing (not by fear of punishment or dishonor, or by a sudden rush of adrenaline, or hope for fame, for instance),
  • and you must actually be facing a situation in which you have good reason to be afraid (and are afraid), and in which your own chosen actions make a difference to the outcome.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics