Thoreau'S Army

Local Peace Activists Share Expertise On The Irs

Singeli Agnew
16 min read
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As we go through the yearly ritual of glumly assessing our own tax bills, we are simultaneously digesting news of war in strong daily doses: increasing fatalities, fresh conflicts and the startling numbers associated with funding on-going military endeavors. Military spending, which had been on a modest decline through most of the '90s, is again rising sharply. And we are paying for it.

War tax resistors and activists, while not exactly an overwhelmingly large movement, would like more people to think about the direct connections between the money we send off in our tax return envelopes and the bloodshed on the news.

Each year over 150 million people in the United States pay direct taxes to the federal government in the form of personal income taxes. The total amount of tax money earned by the U.S. government through Personal Income Taxes is currently over $1 trillion annually. This is an average of $4,000 a year from every person in the country, a total that doesn't include Social Security and other trust funds, state or local taxes, and user fees. What would happen if any appreciable number of people would refuse to pay their taxes?

A.J. Muste, a noted pacifist leader, notes that in order to conduct a war or build a military, the government requires two chief resources: soldiers and money. Technological changes in warfare have created a military with a far greater need for money than for soldiers, resulting in unprecedented peacetime military spending. Additionally, the War on Terrorism has no end in sight.

Federal budget analysis vary greatly depending on who is interpreting the numbers. The U.S. government's figures for military spending (around 17 percent recently) are a lot lower than independent groups looking at military spending, most of whom come out with a figure hovering around 50 percent in recent years. There is a multitude of reasons for this, one of course being that it is in the government's interest for the public to think they are spending more money on social service programs than on war abroad. Military spending is therefore masked in areas other than the Department of Defense. Nuclear weapons, for instance, are the responsibility of the Department of Energy. Additionally, if the government does not have enough money to finance a war or the military they borrow through loans and savings bonds. This borrowing, done heavily during World War II and the Vietnam War, comes back in later years as “hidden” military spending in the form of interest payments on the national debt. In 2004, 47 percent of the federal budget will go to current and past military expenditures, according to the War Resistors League. This total does not include any funds for the War on Terrorism or the war in Iraq, as this will be requested later in the form of supplemental funding.

The history of taxation is tied to war. As money is needed to wage a war, new systems of taxation appear. Customs duties financed most of the Civil War. Tobacco, alcohol and other excise taxes were added to help pay for the Continental Navy. With each subsequent war, military spending skyrocketed, seldom returning to its pre-war level. The enactment of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 established a permanent personal income tax for the first time. The employee withholding system was established in 1943, in the midst of World War II Military outlays during this war increased to almost 80 times the prewar level, and debt taken on to finance the war jumped to six and a half times its 1940 level.

Philosophy of Resistance

Historically, war tax resistors have been members of the “peace churches,” including The Society of Friends (Quakers), the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite Church. Religious convictions have been behind their resistance; to pay war taxes is to participate in war, violating religious beliefs. The goal was moral purity for the sake of personal salvation as well as direct action with the intent of tangible change. Since World War II, and more recently the Vietnam War, there have been significant numbers of war tax resistors motivated by political or secular beliefs. Henry David Thoreau—who spent a night in jail in the mid 1800s for resisting war taxes during the Mexican War—is a hero of many in this movement, and his famous essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” continues to serve as inspiration to those challenging complicit participation in our federal tax system.

Maureen, an Albuquerque peace activist in her 40s who just recently began resisting taxes, credits a situation that happened in the '80s for planting the seed that now inspires her resistance. Alexander Haig, secretary of state during the Reagan Administration, commenting on anti-nuclear weapon protesters gathered outside the White House said, “Let them protest, as long as they are paying taxes.”

“For me,” Maureen said, “I think this kind of lay dormant. You know how you get influenced by something but you don't act on it but it stays. [Haig's comment] was truly to me a revelation, like, ’you know you can stand there, you can go on a hunger strike, you can fast and you can march and have your signs, but we have your money and we're going to do what we want with it.' And that I think stuck with me in a big way, even though I didn't really start acting on it until recently.”

Maureen said that more and more people are beginning to connect their money with war. “Now that people are struggling with health care, 30 percent of Americans are living on $8 an hour or less, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing—people are becoming more aware of this and they hear, ’Oh yeah, they're spending a billion dollars a day in Iraq.' People are like, ’Wait a minute, they need to be spending that money here.' So even if they're not necessarily anti-war … people start to get it.”

Practicalities of Resistence

War tax resistance is not about looking for ways to legally avoid paying taxes, or paying less for personal benefit. It is an act of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action against war. War tax resistors feel that withholding income tax money is among the most powerful ways of staging a protest that cannot be ignored. It implies a level of confrontation, and in most cases, breaking the law. And it is a deliberate acceptance of the consequences of these actions. For many resistors, being public with their actions is an integral part of the process, and the court appeals process is exploited for raising public awareness.

It is important to discern between the war tax avoider and the war tax resistor. A tax avoider is deliberately keeping one's income below the taxable minimum. No laws are broken in doing so, but it requires creativity in simple living and the acceptance of certain lifestyle compromises.

Tax resistors, on the other hand, do not pay some portion of their taxes that under normal circumstances would be collected, and that they owe under order of law. Most redirect this money to charitable causes on a local, national and international level, seeing this as doubling the effect of their resistance. In many states funds specifically for this purpose exist. In Albuquerque, the Albuquerque War Tax Alternative Fund holds funds in an escrow type account, and the interest is donated to “life affirming activities.” Most war tax resistors pay local, state, and property taxes, believing that it is only the federal taxes that are tied to war.

There are two main categories of resistors: those who file but refuse some or all payment, and those who don't file. People who choose to file may also take many routes. The most common scenario is to complete the return according to IRS rules, and include a letter explaining why one is refusing payment. Often resistors will withhold the percentage of what they owe that corresponds with the current military spending, or a symbolic amount related to this percentage (47 cents for 47 percent military spending). Those who choose this method feel that the moral and political impact comes from openly informing the government of the protest, and that it distinguishes the protesters from the millions who are evading taxes for personal benefit. The disadvantages of such a choice include the fact that you are providing the IRS with a lot of information, and that it is easier and more likely for them to then collect.

It was common during the Vietnam years to claim obviously metaphorical numbers of dependents, such as thousands of Vietnamese peasants, or otherwise manipulate the returns to create a negative bill. Now heavier penalties are applied to such tactics, and it is considered “frivolous filing.”

Max and Nancy Rice, Albuquerque residents and long-time peace activists, have been involved in several methods of resistance for several decades. They claim that they got a refund back one year after claiming “war tax deductions” in the “Other Deductions” column. The IRS overlooked the details and dutifully sent a check. The Rices took the refund, matched it with money of their own, and donated half the money to hospitals in North Vietnam, and half to hospitals in South Vietnam, publicizing the event openly.

Max Rice is one of the few people who have served time in jail for war tax resistance. Only about 20 people have been jailed in the last 60 years for reasons related to war tax resistance. In Rice's case, the charge was actually contempt of court, for failing to provide financial information requested by the IRS.

Aanya Adler Friess is an activist in her 70s living in Albuquerque who also began resisting taxes during the Vietnam War. Recently, she has lived below the taxable minimum, but still finds ways to be active around the issue. Her primary method of resistance when she did owe taxes was to include a letter with her tax return, indicating the amount she was refusing to pay. A letter from 1992 states: “Please Note: I owe the IRS $87 for 1991. [I am] a tax protester of conscience, protesting the huge military budget which has crippled the economy of the USA and which is in no way related to defense needs but only to enrichment of the military industries. We are now seeing, finally, the results of 45 years of Cold War idiocy! I believe that eventually the military budget will be reduced, for economic reasons. I, in the meantime, will continue to withhold one-third of my taxes until the defense budget is reduced to some reasonable level. Therefore I am refusing to pay $30 of my tax. I enclose my check of $57. The refused portion will be added to the Albuquerque War Tax Alternative fund and interest on the fund is given to peace and other life affirming organizations. Signed, Yours Sincerely. …”

At one point, the IRS entered her bank account and appropriated approximately $1,500, Aanya said. “It took so much time and effort. I mean, I'm not afraid of the penalties particularly, because I wouldn't go to jail, I would pay the money. But, you're costing them money and making them work to get your tax. It's a very cumbersome process.”

“The fear of the IRS has been so strong,” Maureen added. “People think ’Oh, they're going to come and take everything away and throw you in jail.' I know I would be not truthful if I said I'm not worried about this, or I don't think about dealing with some of that one day. It is very scary. So that's why I think it's kind of like taking little baby steps. You try something, see what happens and then maybe you get a little braver about it.” The IRS wields power by making the tax system complicated, and changing it all the time to keep people confused and a bit intimidated. People think breaking the law means you automatically are in jeopardy of losing everything.

“It's always a process,” Aanya contends, “You have control because you can always give them the money. I know where my limits are, so I wouldn't go to jail. My main concern is, do I want my time and energy to go into fighting the IRS, is that a good use of my limited resources?”

The advantage for those that don't file is that they can often escape being noticed. It is common, especially for women, to change their tax status or change their names, things which make it easy to get overlooked by the IRS.

“Any time that your fighting a really huge bureaucratic organization, it's going to suck up a lot of time and energy (trying) to build an alternative world. I want to be organic gardening, and looking into alternative energy … that's one of the reasons I haven't written a letter” Maureen said. “My philosophy has been well, if they figure it out, let them come get it from me.”

A 1991 article in The Wall Street Journal states: “The General Accounting Office reported that almost half the people with annual incomes above $100,000 who fail to file tax returns are escaping investigation by the IRS. Non filers with incomes below $100,000 are more likely to be assessed for taxes by the agency.” The logic of pursuing those from who the financial gain would be lower is hard to understand.

Other Campaigns

Other campaigns include telephone tax resistance, which many organizations are making a focus of recent campaigns. The federal excise tax on phone bills was first instituted as a “temporary” tax by the War Tax Revenue Act of 1914. It became permanent at 3 percent in 1990, and the money now goes to the General Fund. Because of its origins, and the low risk associated with resisting it, it has become the focus of widespread symbolic resistance. Telephone tax resistance is fairly safe; you’re not going to go to jail, and not even going to lose your phone due to FCC regulations that prevent companies from cutting off phone service for lack of payment of the federal tax.

Others “pay under protest” as a way to object without breaking the law. One woman in California paid her portion of “taxes destined for the military budget” in a check written on a handmade wooden coffin. She had arranged with her bank to honor the unusual draft, and the IRS agents were obliged to accept it, along with a good deal of media attention for the action.

Also, in 1972 the U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. It has been sponsored most years since, but has failed to pass into law. It would provide a legal means to direct one's personal income taxes toward nonmilitary uses. Some war tax resistors disagree with the proposal, however, feeling that someone else would simply pick up the amount, failing to affect the amount we spend on military. It would make it easier for people to “swaddle the fact “ that they were paying for war, Max Rice said. Theoretically one's federal taxes would be going to peaceful purposes, such as roads and social services, but someone else would just be picking up the amount missing from the military budget.

“That's going to undercut the whole idea of tax resistance.” Rice added. “We need to resist the evil that we know is much huger. If people have a legal out then they're not going to deal with the fact that so much of their money goes to the military.”


So doesn't refusing to pay taxes because you disagree with war open up a can of worms? What about all the other things that someone might disagree with that we pay taxes for? For many people the big one that would be on the top of the list would be abortion. If one doesn't agree with the federal decision on abortion than why would you pay your federal taxes? The federal government has federal programs for health and sometimes those include education on abortion. Or what about those who disagree with welfare, not paying taxes because some of their money would be used for these purposes—is this moving us in the direction of chaos and anarchy?

War tax resistors respond by noting that nothing else in our federal budget even comes close to receiving the kind of attention our military budget receives. “If abortion were 50 percent of the federal budget that would be an issue I would want to take a look at really hard,” said Nancy Rice. “It is not. But the military expenditures in this country are.”

Bill Brunson, an IRS spokesperson in Phoenix who was contacted for this article, said he wasn’t aware of war tax resistance as a movement. Eighty five percent of the nation’s population are fully compliant with federal income taxes, he said. Ten percent are not fully compliant for a variety of reasons, but are not opposed to the taxation system. Five percent of the nation’s population refuse to pay taxes because they are constitutionally opposed to the taxation system, he said, but he was not aware of people refusing to pay taxes because of opposition to military spending. He made no differentiation between anarchists, libertarians, or others simply trying to avoid paying and those resisting due to pacifist beliefs.

Positive Change

“I think that more and more, saying that you're opposed to war is becoming an acceptable position for people in America,” Nancy Rice said. “I don't think we're in the majority, but I think it's becoming more and more understood that that makes sense and that we have come to the edge of world annihilation. As Martin Luther King said, the choice is not between violence and nonviolence, the choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence. And I just think more and more people are comprehending that. So, the fact that we're not blown up already is a miracle for me. I live with the hope that human beings will come to treasure their, our, position on this earth in a rightful spot. And that would certainly include getting rid of all our nuclear weapons and having a security force that was appropriate and helpful to people rather than instilling fear and inequality in our cultures.”

However one feels about breaking the law in order to take a stand against war, there is little argument with the idea that if you are part of something, you should stay aware of what that means. Money is power, and we speak our values with it. This country was founded, ostensibly, by people who objected to taxation without representation. For war tax resistors the issue seems to be: Are we participating in this democracy with our eyes wide open?


Albuquerque War Tax Alternative Fund: 323-5539

War Resistor's League: or 212-228-0450

National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee: or 800-269-7464.

Center for Defense Information: or #202-332-0600

A free introductory workshop for people interested in war tax resistance will be hosted by the Peace and Justice Center (268-9557) on March 29, 2004, from 6:30-8 p.m.

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