Conscientious Objection... to Paying Your Taxes

Columbus Alive | April 7, 2005
There are two quotes that war tax resisters like to throw around. One is from Henry David Thoreau, the godfather of American civil disobedience, who spent a night in jail in protest of the Mexican-American War, saying that for a thousand people to refuse paying taxes “would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”

The other is from former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, as much a villain to the peace movement as Thoreau is a hero, who reportedly responded to war protesters with the words, “Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes.”

Both Thoreau and Haig were essentially saying the same thing: America’s ability to wage wars takes the cooperation of its citizens. Not just in their willingness to, say, re-elect a president who would preemptively launch an invasion on a country under false pretenses, but also in their willingness to foot the bill.

And oh what a bill it is. The Bush administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, released in February, called for a five percent increase in defense spending, pushing it up to $419.3 billion. That represents, according to the National Priorities Project, 51 percent of all discretionary spending. And that’s not counting what will be spent on Afghanistan and Iraq, because the administration didn’t factor the two wars into the equation. If they did, it would be more like 56 percent of discretionary spending.

You can write all the letters to the editor you want. You can march in as many peace demonstrations as you want. And you can even refuse to fight as a conscientious objector should you (God forbid) ever get drafted. But as long as you’re paying taxes, you’re still supporting the war.

At least, that’s the theory behind war tax resistance, a longstanding form of protest in which activists refuse to pay all or some of their federal income taxes (and the federal excise tax on phone bills, which goes to the military) as a way of completely opting out of the country’s military machine.

Well, it may sound like a great idea, but it’s not like taxes are exactly voluntary to begin with. I mean, what about the world’s most feared bureaucracy—the Internal Revenue Service?

As it turns out, a lot of the IRS’s bad rep is just that—a rep. The IRS has about 99,000 employees and a budget of $10.2 billion, which seems impressive, but it’s really not much considering that the agency is supposed to keep tabs on every single American taxpayer and provide a full 95 percent of the country’s income.

A study released by the IRS at the end of March found a gap between what was owed and what was collected to the tune of more than $300 billion per year. In other words, the IRS doesn’t have the time or manpower to track down every Henry, David and Thoreau who refuses to pay.

There’s a whole rainbow of methods for war tax refusal, varying in degrees of intensity and illegality.

The easiest way is to simply quit paying the federal phone tax, which was created as a “temporary” tax in 1914 and, 76 years later, was made permanent at a rate of three percent of your phone bill. Since the phone company is responsible for collecting the tax and handing it over to the feds, they have very little incentive to go after you for failing to pay it (as long as you’re paying the rest of your phone bill).

As for the income tax, some people refuse to file at all. Others will file blank forms or forms filled out with zeroes, or file as normal, but instead of making their checks out to the Internal Revenue Service they’ll make it out to another federal agency, like the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Still others will try to figure out how much of their taxes would go to support the Defense Department, and subtract that amount, or simply subtract a token one dollar or a symbolic $10.40 (hoping that these amounts won’t be enough to attract IRS attention). Many protesters will send letters of explanation to the IRS, letting the agency know exactly what they’re doing and why.

Perhaps the most hardcore way to avoid funding the war machine is to try to live below the taxable income level, which means earning less than about $10,000 a year. If you’re that poor, Uncle Sam lets you keep it all. If you’re used to making more than 10K, however, it’s a pretty radical adjustment just to have a clean conscience. On the plus side, it’s perfectly legal.

The modern war tax resistance movement really picked up steam in the early ’70s, as a response to the Vietnam War. It was about the same time that Congressman Ronald Dellums introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act to make war tax resistance legal.

Now known as the Peace Tax Fund, it’s been introduced to every session of Congress since, though it’s yet to pass (and it doesn’t sound like something the Republican-controlled Congress is going to ram through this year).

Basically, the act would create a legal conscientious objector status for taxpayers, allowing them to put their money in a special fund that the government couldn’t reallocate to the defense budget. That may sound a little pie-in-the-sky, along the lines of Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s proposal to create a federal Department of Peace, but it wouldn’t just serve a couple thousand peaceniks. It would also benefit religious groups like the Quakers and Mennonites who are strictly pacifist.

The early ’70s was also when Rod Nippert of Amesville, Ohio (near Athens) started refusing to pay his taxes. During the Vietnam War, he struggled with whether or not he should resist the draft. Ultimately he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, but got to thinking about taxes as support for the war.

“It seems so clear to those of us doing it, and probably to a lot not doing it, that if you oppose war, the money is just as important as your body,” Nippert said. “And if you’re giving your money you’re supporting that war, so I think there’s a lot of people that are uncomfortable with it.”

Nippert said tax resistance led his life down a path he wouldn’t have expected, a more simple path, but that it’s proved to be a positive one. He simply doesn’t file a tax return, which he says makes it a little harder for the IRS to figure out what he’s doing. As an independent contractor, working in a stained glass shop, he can’t have his wages garnished, and because his home is on community-held land, they can’t take his property either.

Other than four years in the late ’80s when the IRS pursued him rather aggressively, forcing him to close out a bank account, the static he’s received hasn’t been all that intense, Nippert said, but it can be a hassle.

In the early ’80s Nippert helped create the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (or NWTRCC, pronounced “newtrack”), a loosely organized national group that provides resources for war tax resisters and those thinking about resisting. Other organizations, like the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund, have also sprung up, to help pay the fees and penalties accrued by tax resisters.

Nippert recommends that anyone thinking about resisting spend a long time thinking about it, as it can be a pretty big disruption to your life, and contact a group like NWTRCC to learn as much as possible first. Part of that is preparing ways to defend yourself, he said, and some resisters use the money they’re not sending to the IRS to set up a special bank account that can eventually be used to pay off the penalties and interest they accrue for unpaid taxes.

That’s one way to set aside the money you’re not spending on war. After all, if you’re simply not paying your taxes and keeping it all for yourself, are you really resisting the principle of paying for war or simply having to part with some cash? Nippert cuts checks in the amount he’d pay in taxes to groups like Oxfam America. Others spend it on furthering the cause by donating to groups like the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.

“I have not paid any federal income tax since 1973 and they have not gotten a penny,” Nippert said. “So it is possible to do that and not have them get the money—and it’s not like they haven’t pursued me.”

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