Should War Opponents Refuse to Pay Federal Taxes?


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There are public policy issues that expand in importance until they affect every other item on the political agenda. The Iraq War is one such issue. Those of us who research and write about taxes or lobby Congress on tax issues may have felt that our work was unrelated to the war, but a group of anti-war activists have brought that into question in a public way.

The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee encourages Americans to abstain from paying their federal income taxes, in whole or in part, to avoid funding the war. They're not the first to take this stand. They point to Henry David Thoreau's tax resistance during the war with Mexico. And they're not easily dismissed as Utopians or radicals. They make a fairly logical argument. If one can avoid military service because he is a conscientious objector of war, then maybe he should be able to abstain from paying for war. If I think a certain action is wrong and I refuse to do it, why should I pay for other people to do it?

But as we step away from philosophical arguments and towards the reality of how taxes are collected and used by our government, the case for this type of resistance unfortunately falls apart.

The first problem with this idea is that refusing to pay all or part of one's federal income taxes cannot possibly end or prevent a war. For one thing, the current administration has shown us that when making a decision about war, the government cares little how much revenue it actually has. The Bush administration is perfectly willing to wage a deficit-financed war, that is, a war paid for with the national credit card. Even if you take a micro view and just want to make sure your own personal income does not fund the war, you may find yourself out of luck. The IRS is able to access your wages and bank accounts and collect penalites, so there's no guarantee that your money won't end up in their hands.

There is another problem with this type of resistance that might not be immediately obvious to its proponents. If the practice of protesting through refusing to pay taxes became more widely accepted, it's not at all clear that the main beneficiaries would be those who support peace. There are plenty of right-wingers who with very little encouragement could stop paying taxes because they oppose federal health programs, housing programs, funding of public education (which many on the far right believe undermines the morals of the young) or foreign aid for impoverished countries.

On a deeper level this could do great harm to the underpinnings of our democratic society. We all seem to agree, implicitly, that decisions made through our democratic process are legitimate (if not always wise) and will be followed by all. We all generally believe that the people we elect at the local, state and federal levels will decide how fast we will all drive, how much pollution can be pumped into rivers, how many cops need to be on the streets, where highways should be built and how many lanes they should have, what rules passenger planes should follow to keep from crashing into each other, and countless other things that make life bearable. Few of us want to live in a world where those decisions are ignored by most people.

Now of course, there may be situations in which government decisions seem so unjust that these concerns can be put aside. If democracy and the rule of law are really just tools we use to keep from shooting at each other and stealing from one another, then what's the point if you believe the government itself is doing the killing? Opposition to the war could certainly take precedence over any worry over the long-term effects of tax resistance on Americans' belief in the democratic process, which seems pretty abstract in comparison.

But refusing to pay one's taxes and forcing the IRS to attach your wages and collect a penalty from you does not serve the moral purpose stated by proponents of this form of protest. The fact that one cannot end this war or even hasten its end in this way, combined with the greater damage that this practice could do to progressive causes if it becomes more accepted, leads us to conclude that tax resistance to the war is not a practical or even particularly moral alternative. There are ways to mobilize opposition to a given government policy, through organizing, through electoral means, and maybe even through other forms of civil disobedience in select situations. But tax protesting is not the answer.
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