One Way to Resist a Tax: Convince the Government to Repeal It

One way a tax resistance campaign can claim victory is by convincing the government to either formally rescind the tax, or to recognize the legal validity of tax resistance.

  • Charles Ⅰ went around Parliament to create a new property tax, and John Hampden famously said “no” in . He lost his court case, but the next Parliament legalized his resistance by voiding the “ship-writs” tax and declaring the court judgment against him invalid.
  • American Amish, after a long campaign of lobbying, lawsuits, civil disobedience, and public relations, successfully won an exemption to the U.S. social security system, including its tax, and also canceled the outstanding social security tax bills of 15,000 Amish resisters.
  • A number of pacifist groups, frequently including war tax resisters, have been trying to get their governments to recognize or legally formalize a right to conscientious objection to military spending that would permit conscientious objectors to pay their taxes in a way that would not pay for the military portion of the government’s budget: a “Peace Tax” as it were. So far, none of these long-standing efforts — which have included legal challenges using a variety of arguments, lobbying, and appeals to international legal bodies — have borne much fruit. Governments seem universally hostile to the idea, and those international legal bodies with any clout have been unwilling to push the point.
    • Besides this, it is difficult to separate a government’s military budget from the rest of its budget in a way that would make a separate “Peace Tax” plausible. The American version of the “Peace Tax” legislation, for instance, would ironically result in more taxpayer money going to military projects. Italy has an otto per mille tax, which people can designate either for their church or for “humanitarian and cultural projects” of the government’s choosing — this resembles the sort of plan the “Peace Tax” promoters have in mind, but Italy’s government cunningly declared its participation in the Iraq War a “humanitarian and cultural” project and siphoned the funds off that way.
  • A tax resister who was opposed to the death penalty came to an agreement with the state of Delaware in which the state permitted him to pay his state taxes into a fund designated for paying state tax refunds of other taxpayers, rather than into the general fund that funded the prison system and executions.
  • American Quaker war tax resister Joshua Evans was so persistent that eventually the tax collector gave up. “I was told it was concluded that as I gave myself up very much to the service of Truth, it was not proper I should be troubled on account of military demands; and I understood my name was erased, or taken from their list.” Occasionally something similar happens today, when because a war tax resister has so few assets, or those assets would take too much trouble to discover, the IRS formally lists the resister’s file as “uncollectible” and gives up the attempt to force payment. After ten years, a delinquent income tax payment hits a statute of limitations and the U.S. government is generally forbidden to pursue the matter further.
  • American suffragist activist Sarah E. Wall resisted her taxes for 25 years, when finally, according to Susan B. Anthony, “I do not know exactly how it is now, but the assessor has left her name off the tax-list, and passed her by rather than have a lawsuit with her.” Something similar happened to English suffragist tax resister Charlotte Despard and some others: “[T]he Government rather than go to the trouble of selling up the recalcitrant ‘debtor,’ and attracting attention to the principle involved, had quietly dropped the matter in several instances. Mrs. Despard had had no application for taxes since she had been sold up last year.”
  • Ellen C. Sargent patiently pursued legal challenges in California to try to promote women’s suffrage with a “no taxation without representation” argument. She began by petitioning the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a refund of her property taxes, and then filed a lawsuit when this petition was denied (the lawsuit also failed).
  • When farmers in drought-ravaged regions of Argentina threatened a tax strike in , the government responded with a clever bit of ju-jitsu — it declared an agricultural emergency in the area which exempted those farmers from paying taxes.
  • Utah governor J. Bracken Lee stopped paying his federal income taxes in the hopes of prompting a Supreme Court test case that would invalidate what he considered to be extraconstitutional federal spending. (The court declined to take his case.)
  • A group referred to as “the Texas housewives” resisted paying the social security tax on the salaries of their household help, and pursued a two-year parallel legal challenge to have the tax invalidated, before finally being turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Property tax resisters in Depression-era Chicago won a court case that found property assessments in the city to have been performed incorrectly — with $15 billion in property held by wealthy, well-connected Chicagoans somehow left off the rolls — thus effectively legalizing the resistance. “As the matter stands,” a newspaper account put it, “citizens howled about their taxes, refused to pay them and a court upheld them. They are in revolt with legal sanction.”
  • During the Land League’s rent strike in Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell reported that “a large majority of landlords” reduced the rents on their properties, “[which] shows that they did finally recognize the situation, and that they determined to make the best of it.”
  • When the Prussian quasi-autocracy tried to ignore the legislature and govern on its own, the legislature formally declared tax resistance to be legal, and said that the autocrats had no authority to raise or spend money. Something similar happened in Russia half a century later, when the Czar dissolved the legislature, which then reconvened in Vyborg and called on the citizens to refuse to pay any more taxes to the Czar.
  • According to a book on war tax resistance: “In Russia became the first country to establish legislation exempting pacifists from paying war taxes. Thirty British citizens were invited by Czar Alexander Ⅰ to establish a cotton mill. Because some of the employees were Quakers, a petition was submitted to the Czar from the employees asking for freedom of conscience and an exemption from military service, church taxes for war, etc. The Czar issued a certificate which read ‘His Imperial Majesty has given his gracious assent to this petition … all … shall be exempted from all civil and military taxes … the sect of Quakers may now and in future be freed from war taxes for the support of the Military…’ Two English Quakers visiting Russia in found these provisions still in effect.”
  • The Great Confederated Anti-Dray and Land Tax League of South Australia began as a tax resistance and mutual insurance group, but was soon successful in convincing the government to rescind the offensive tax.

But history is also full of lessons about the foolishness of trusting the government when it responds to your tax resistance campaign by insisting that it’s on your side and wants to help. For example:

  • When tax resistance leader Wat Tyler was assassinated while negotiating with the King in , the king boldly went out to the enraged crowd and told it that he would be their leader and would press for their demands. Instead, he waited for the fuss to die down, then executed some of the other leaders of the rebellion.
  • When the Whigs were whisked into power in the wake of the Reform Act agitation around , the tax resistance movement celebrated its victory… only to find that the Whigs could be just as tyrannical about prosecuting those who promoted tax resistance as their Tory cousins.
  • The recent American TEA Party was quickly coöpted by the Republican Party, which learned how to lead it by the nose with witless rhetoric, but conceded nothing on the tax-and-spend big government front.
  • During the Annuity Tax strike in Edinburgh, the government passed something called the “Edinburgh Annuity Tax Abolition Act.” Despite its name, that act did not abolish the annuity tax, but merely concealed it with an aim to making it more difficult to resist.