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The Noble American Traditon of Tax Resistance

You've heard about Thoreau, but there are plenty of other celebrity war tax resisters who have made America great.
 
 
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If you ask the average citizen to identify a famous American war-tax resister, most folks (if they came up with a name at all) would probably cite Henry David Thoreau. But how about Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky or Gloria Steinem?

While the author of Walden Pond is remembered for the night he spent in a Massachusetts jail for refusing to pony up to support the Mexican-American war of 1846, his solitary protest was an anomaly. But 120 years later, Baez, Chomsky and Steinem were joined by more than 500,000 Americans who openly opposed paying taxes to support Washington's bloody war in Vietnam.

Today, with tens of millions of Americans marching to protest the administration's invasion of Iraq, the nonviolent tactic of war-tax resistance is gaining new converts. And, as the April 15 tax deadline approaches, Baez and company have issued a new Appeal to Conscience proclaiming that citizens have a "moral duty" to oppose Washington's war of occupation by "refusal to pay taxes used to finance unjust wars."

The link between taxpayers and warmongers was indelibly etched during the Vietnam Era when U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig dismissed the anti-war protests filling America's streets with the comment: "Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes."

The War Resisters League (WRL) agrees with Haig on this point: "Taxation is the closest war-making link between the government and most citizens. The U.S. government's ability to threaten and coerce other nations is a direct result of the unprecedented size of our military arsenal ... The maintenance of this arsenal depends upon the willingness of the American people ... to finance it."

The Center for Defense Information (CDI) notes that the FY 2004 federal budget includes "$782 billion for discretionary spending (the money the President and Congress must decide and act to spend each year), $399 billion of which will go to the Pentagon." Put another way, CDI says, spending for "national defense" now comprises more than half (51 percent) of all discretionary spending in the federal budget.

According to WRL, since WW II, the percentage of the federal budget devoted to military expenses (past and present) has ranged from 45 percent to 90 percent. The true impact of this military spending is obscured by several accounting tricks, WRL claims. "Each year, when the government announces the budget, they mix Federal Funds with Trust Funds (such as Social Security) to create a 'Unified Budget.' But, in reality, Trust Funds are completely separated from Federal Funds." The Unified Budget, the WRL states, was created during the Vietnam War to mask the impact of the war's cost by making the military portion of the budget appear smaller and the human needs portion larger.

As WRL comments, "millions of people are underfed, unemployed and homeless while billions of dollars are spent to fuel, house and store weapons, tanks, planes and ships, and to recruit and train our youth in the ways of war." And, because the Pentagon is one of the worst polluters on the planet, taxpayers also "end up paying again to clean up after the military." A Short History of Taxation and Resistance Until the outbreak of WWII, war-tax resistance was largely limited to a few religious communities -- notably the Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren. The rise of a U.S. "War Economy" required an expanded tax base so, in 1943, the government introduced employee withholding -- a preemptive seizure of earnings that brought the majority of the population under the tax laws.

In April 1948, American pacifist A. J. Muste created a tax-resistance group called the Peacemakers. As Muste memorably observed: "People are drafted through the Selective Service System and money is drafted through the Internal Revenue Service."

In 1964, singer Joan Baez made war-tax resistance a national issue when she announced her decision to withhold the 60 percent of her taxes that were tagged to fund the Vietnam War. Muste issued a new tax-resistance statement that was signed by Baez, pacifist David Dellinger, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, publisher Lyle Stuart, Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and thousands of others.

When Washington imposed a 10 percent surcharge on phone bills to pay for the escalating costs of its failing war, Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Kirkpatrick Sale and 528 colleagues formed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest.

By the early 1970s, the number of war-tax resisters soared to more than 20,000 while phone-tax resisters swelled to an estimated 500,000. The IRS had to throw in the towel when it came to phone-tax refuseniks because the individual amounts withheld were so small, the government actually lost money on the few cases it did pursue.

By 1972, War Tax Resistance chapters had sprung up in 192 U.S. cities. Churches began to openly encourage their members to refuse war taxes. Congressman Ronald Dellums (D-CA) introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act to create a special "conscientious objector" status for taxpayers. The legislation, now called the Peace Tax Fund, has been introduced in every session of Congress for the past 30 years.

In 1981, Seattle's Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen called upon his flock to oppose the nuclear arms race by withholding 50 percent of their income taxes. Resistance Strategies Resisting war-taxes can be as simple as filing a blank 1040 with a note of explanation. Some resisters fill out 1040s but refuse to pay all or a token amount of taxes due. Some people refuse to pay just the percentage that goes to war while others withhold a symbolic $10.40 or underpay their tax levy by a dollar. Some make their checks payable not to the IRS but to the Department of Education, Headstart or the EPA.

Phone-tax refusal remains the least risky form of tax resistance. Phone companies have no interest in collecting taxes for the government, so this act of resistance is widely tolerated.

Contemporary resisters argue that the principle of "no taxation without representation" clearly applies to an administration that routinely ignores such popular programs as environmental protection, public education, affordable healthcare, labor issues and women's rights. Bush's refusal to abide by a host of international agreements covering landmines, global warming and the rights of children bolsters this argument.

Finally, the government's aggression in the Middle East has given tax-resisters new justification for non-cooperation. With Washington operating in open defiance of the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution, some resisters fear that paying taxes could render them complicit in the commission of war crimes. Better Leavenworth, they reason, than Nuremberg.

Tax resisters can face civil penalties of 5 to 25 percent on the amount owed (plus compound interest at a rate of around 10 percent). If the amount goes unpaid, the government can attach wages, bank accounts, cars and homes. Criminal prosecution is possible but uncommon.

Such penalties could become a thing of the past if Congress were to pass (and the president were to sign) the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill. This bill would allow citizens to assign the "defense" portion of their taxes to a fund supporting peace work and social services. The Peace Tax Bill will be introduced in the 108th Congress around Tax Day April 15.

Since neither Congress nor the United Nations could prevent the U.S. from launching a preemptive war of occupation in the Middle East, a National Tax Strike may be the last, best tactic for bringing a rogue administration to account. It is unlikely that even Attorney General John Ascroft could secure enough jail space to accommodate tens of millions of peace-loving tax-resisters.

For more information, contact the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012, (212) 228-0450, www.WarResisters.org.

Gar Smith, the former editor of Earth Island Journal, currently edits the weekly eco-zine The-Edge. He also is a co-founder of Environmentalists Against War.