Originally published on forbes.com on August 10, 2011.
This is the second post in a series (possible a two part series, but we'll see) on war tax resistance. People refuse to pay taxes for a variety of reasons. I'm pretty sure that the most common one is that they would rather keep the money for themselves. Some self-styled "patriots" believe that if you study the law really hard you will realize that there is no legal obligation to pay. This series is not about them. Rather it is about people engaging in principled civil disobedience. This is also the first guest post that I have had since I started on Forbes. The author is Ed Agro. We "met" when he commented on my piece about activist Tom Cahill.
WTR 101: What I've Learned about War Tax Refusal
I guess mine was one of the comments that prompted Peter to start this series on war tax resistance, as he's offered me this chance to speak up for it. "WTR" is generally taken to mean resistance, refusal, and redirection taken all together, with different resisters feeling at different times more comfortable with one or another of the three.
Resistance implies to me courage and daring, traits in short supply in the present timid state of our civic life. My current tax delinquency has nothing of courage or daring about it, nor am I contributing my refused taxes to one of our alternative funds, so these days I leave the more heroic and work-intensive meanings of that R aside, and simply call what I do war tax refusal.
I don't know how well my own experience and understanding of WTR reflects the general opinion in the community of resisters, a very diverse lot.
Though I began refusing to pay war taxes some 44 years ago, I've not been the most consistent or public refuser. But it's remained part of my civic life since then. And I've been following the WTR efforts in Eastern Massachusetts lo these too-many years, and so maybe if our discussion develops I can say something of how things have worked out in what we once did with reason call our "resistance community."
My conception of WTR falls somewhere between that of the anarcho-pacifist and anarcho-libertarian wings of the community of refusers, much to the disgust of both. On one hand I think that some wars need to be supported (though what "supported" means would require another essay); on the other hand my own individuality, anarchic as it is, isn't particularly offended by the notion that a nation of 300,000,000 people requires some rules and regulations in order to get anything done, or that I have to chip in via my taxes to help pay for the work. So my war tax refusal has been one of ifs, buts, and the character of the particular war of the moment. This existential uncertainty is important to my sense of how the world is structured, but it's also been of some tactical use; it's led to some illuminating conversations with various officials who on occasion have tried to disabuse me of my contradictory attitudes, meanwhile forgetting that they had approached me in the first place to disabuse me of the refusal. If such an uncertain person as myself can struggle against war and militarism by way of war tax refusal, then anyone can.
The actual practice of war tax refusal depends critically on an individual's circumstances and temperament; over the long haul it also depends on the arc of that person's life. There's no one recipe, no one outcome. Thus makes making a "movement" of WTR difficult. I'd intended here to present a particular and overall happy case, my own. I successfully "kept money from the war machine" at a time when it was easier to do than in the present computerized milieu. Yet at that time the risk of jail was I think greater than it is now. It's so much easier now for the IRS to seize arrears that they don't have to bother locking anyone away for merely refusing to pay up. (I suppose the case is different for those who advocate WTR, or cajole people into it under false pretenses, or launder their refusals, etc. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.)
I'm also reluctant to present myself as an exemplar since my refusal these days is as miniscule as my life is frugal; my story could rightly be dismissed by those still in the work force. Still, it's important to me to keep on and to share what I've learned along the way.
In thinking over all this, it occurs to me that the first order of business is to pin down exactly what WTR is and is not. So I start with that.
I have to agree with Peter that the usual conscientious grounds for war tax refusal brought before tax courts have no technical merit - no sort of "conscientious exemption" will follow from our attempts to change the tax code. We need not get bent out of shape by the courts' use of "frivolous" - it's a technical term, folks; it doesn't necessarily mean that the people in the court necessarily consider us to be loopy butterflies. Indeed, I've found that some of them don't and we may as well not waste our time on the terminology. In the 1970s and '80s the members of our Boston group (New England War Tax Resistance, a name that our confreres in the Pioneer Valley rightly thought overweening - but when we formed we didn't know of them) brought two such cases, well attended - and one where we forgot to show up - and the court came to the same conclusion. Despite this legal outcome, which has been repeated many times over the years in cases brought elsewhere in the country by war tax refusers as well as by those whose conscience impels them in other directions, I still applaud those war resisters who have the stomach for such an exercise. I hope the reason for supporting such apparently fruitless effort will be clear from what follows.
So the question is, If war tax refusal isn't leading to a change in the law, why persist in it? Much of the answer lies in a by-now hoary analogy.
Slavery was once part of American law; people - in Massachusetts no less - whom we now consider to have been self-deluded, of little imagination, or craven returned escapees to slavery, all in the name of the law. Meanwhile, the abolitionists running the underground railroad were excoriated for their unlawful behavior. I suppose the Civil War ended slavery - there might've been a better way, I don't know - but it didn't end what we might call the "preferential option" of a part of the population for keeping others in as close to slavery as possible, and a larger part from going along with it. Yet nowadays no one in America apart from the usual lunatics would prefer to reinstitute slavery; that option has become unthinkable.
And I like to believe, if one of the aforementioned lunatics were discovered to be keeping slaves, most of my neighbors would leap up in opposition without worrying overmuch about their reputation or the wealth or power of the slaver. This change in what we expect our civic life to look like and what we consider our duties as citizens to be has come about through the eccentric, sometimes quixotic refusal to obey laws that offended reason as well as conscience. As regards slavery it didn't come about in a moment, it took many years, well into the 20th century in fact.
A similar preferential option against militarism as the jobs program of our government and mindless, ill-considered wars as our national purpose, has already been as long in coming and will take longer yet to finally settle in our civic consciousness. To my mind the struggle absolutely requires that everyone whose opinion is that we're living in an overmilitarized & overaggressive nation quit jawing about it and attack the problem where it touches them, even where the received wisdom is that that touch is insignificant, or symbolic, or just too much bother. I know that money is fungible and that for all we know the taxes we personally refuse to hand over may well have gone to good ends rather than bad; I know that WTR can be, and in my case has been, a source of endless contradiction. I guess that in regard to how our taxes are used and whether we should allow them to be used for what we consider in all conscience to be bad ends we could do worse than go back to cranky old Thoreau, quit worrying about our neighbors' or our judges' opinions, and instead put our citizenship to good use by acting out of our best impulses. This is the main point, the main impulse to WTR. If it's kept in mind all the other more immediate issues, even the hard ones, become a lot simpler to handle.
As I've tried to make clear, the above is an idiosyncratic take on the WTR community and movement. Those wishing to know what the organized community is like can best start at http://nwtrcc.org, the website of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. By roaming through the site you'll find their useful newsletter, and there are lots of other resources. Some of the various approaches to WTR can be gotten by going to the biographies in the Resources > Speakers Bureau section.
If you go to the NWTRCC site, you may have to scroll down to see the content you are looking for. I don't know if its my browser or the site, but I had trouble seeing anything when I first went there.
About The Author By Himself
When I left home in 1956 with the idea of becoming a physicist, I found MIT and Boston to be alive in all directions, and I bopped around from academic department to department, trying to reconcile my love of science with a growing appreciation of other modes of knowledge; I think I spent as much time hanging out in MIT's Architecture Department studios and the Museum School as in the Physics labs. As I was sorting myself out came the 1960s, and not only the American invasion of Vietnam but also a perception that big science was being sold out to the powerful and that instead of learning I was being trained drew most of my energies away from science and into everything else. While I eventually got my bachelor's, took a few grad courses, and worked in experimental physics for while, most of my time was spent in antiwar organizing and - as soon as I got paying work - in WTR.
Even later when family obligations led me to my longest job, as a science editor at the MIT Press, my main enthusiasm, done after hours and gratis, was in using my skills to help out projects having a chance of bringing about social change. I don't think there was a humanitarian impulse at work here as much as a perception that subtle questions were crying to be addressed. I retired from MIT early with the idea of changing course, but that didn't quite work out, and I now spend my time thinking about why & how some social change seems to work and some doesn't.
This sounds awfully dour and busybodyish. It's really not, and the busybody part is saved by laziness. All in all, I'm satisfied.
Thanks for your contribution Ed.