Withholding War Taxes

The New Republic, April 10, 1971

THE OTHER day I received a telephone call from a harried civil servant named Wayne Thrush.  Mr. Thrush works in the department of the Internal Revenue Ser­vice that tracks down delinquent taxpayers, of whom I am one.  He was polite, even genial, considering his unpleasant mission, and after all those computer-printed warn­ings I was almost happy to be talking with him.  At least he was alive.

Mr. Thrush asked where my 1969 taxes were.  I explained that I would not volun­tar­ily pay that portion of my income tax that went for the war in Southeast Asia.  Mr. Thrush sighed, and I chose not to weary him with a lengthy exposition on the Nur­em­­berg trials; he’d obviously heard it before.  When he asked me where I banked, I expressed surprise that he didn’t already know — after all, I’d withheld part of my taxes the year before, and the IRS had come and taken it out of my account.

Well, he said, IRS wasn’t as efficient as people thought; he couldn’t find my file for 1969.  Would I help him out by giving him the information he needed?  I declined, and Mr. Thrush set out on his search.  A few days later my bank called: Mr. Thrush had found his quarry, and was with­drawing from my account the taxes I owed plus 12 percent interest.

So, ten months after it was due, the government had my money plus a modest bonus.  Was the exercise worth it?  For several reasons I think that it was.  The government had collected a little more than I originally owed, but it had spent quite a bit in the process.  More to the point, I had told the government in deed as well as word where I stood: my assets could be seized, I could even be thrown in jail, but I would not will­­ingly abet the continuance of a war I consider illegal and immoral.

UNDER the Constitution, Congress has the power to levy taxes and to appropriate tax revenues for a variety of purposes, including the waging of war.  The only rele­vant restriction is that no appropriation for the military shall be for a term longer than two years.  There is little that citizens can legally do to thwart a congressionally imposed war tax, even when war has not been declared.  The Supreme Court held in Froth­ing­ham v. Mellon (1923) that taxpayers have no stand­ing to question the use of their minu­­scule fraction of Treasury funds, no matter how strongly they believe their taxes are being used for unconstitutional pur­poses.  A more recent suit, claiming the right of con­­scientious objection to Vietnam War taxes, was rejected by a federal appeals court.

But if citizens do not have a legal right to withhold taxes allocated to the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia war, might they not have a moral obligation to do so?  “The power to tax,” Chief Justice Marshall observed years ago, “involves the power to destroy.” The state of Maryland, he said, could not use that power to destroy a fledgling national bank.  In Southeast Asia the taxing power of the government is being used to destroy an entire nation, and beyond that, the hopes of decent Americans for a sensible ordering of national priorities.  Who is to be held accountable for this de­struction? Merely those who order it, who levy taxes to pay for it?  Or are those who acquiesce also responsible?

For a long time I felt that responsibility lay exclu­sively with those who gave the orders: the President, his top advisers, the military chieftains and the Con­gressmen who financed them.  Two conclusions fol­lowed from this belief: first, that the way to end the destruction was to persuade the President and his advisers to stop it, or fail­ing that, to remove them from office and replace them with new leaders; and second, that the only obligation of private citizens such as myself was to speak out against the war and work through the political process against those who supported it.  Acting on these assumptions, I voted for Johnson in 1964, worked for McCarthy in 1968, and gave money to antiwar candidates for the House and Senate.  All the while I paid taxes, and weapons were bought with those taxes and used.

By 1969 I had come to a gloomy conclusion.  Even a democratic government does not need its citizens’ approval to conduct an imperial venture; it needs only their bodies and cash.  To surrender these is to make a war possible; to choose to sur­render them is to accept moral responsibility for that war.

THE ELEMENT OF CHOICE is at the heart of the matter.  Young men confronted by con­scrip­tion have a pain­fully narrow range of alternatives: they can accept induction, risk five years in prison, or skip the country.  Their moral burden is the heaviest of all citizens’, and those among them who choose the path of resistance deserve our deep­est respect.  The range of choice is wider and not quite so painful for taxpayers: a variety of options are available between following the leader on the one hand and permanent self-exile on the other, and criminal prosecution of those who exercise these options is rare.  Given the availability of choice, there is a world of difference be­tween voluntarily coughing up war taxes and making the government come after them.

As a strategy for protest, tax withholding is in many ways analogous to a consumer boycott or rent strike.  In this case, the tenants are citizens of America; their com­plaint is not a leaky roof but a crumbling foreign policy.  They are not opposed to pay­ing taxes for a government in good repair, or to put it in good repair, but until the landlord does his bit they must hold a portion of their taxes in escrow.  An analogy can also be made to one of the enforcement levers of the Civil Rights Act: the federal government withholds money from states and municipalities that discriminate ille­gal­ly.  Here, citizens withhold money from a govern­ment that kills without just cause and without clear legal sanction.

Such a strategy has weaknesses.  A major one is that the lion’s share — and often the totality — of most workers’ federal income tax obligation is withheld from their pay­checks involuntarily.  Another is that, while tax dodging is a popular sport, especially among the rich, tax withholding for political reasons has not been in vogue since the 1760s.  A third is that since the govern­ment eventually collects what’s due it anyway, war tax withholding may seem little more than a gesture.

Morally, too, there are problems.  Since it is a form of civil disobedience, tax with­hold­ing is not a step to be taken lightly by anyone who cherishes govern­ment by law.  Moreover, a person’s income, unlike his life, derives from his membership and acti­vit­y in an organized society.  This being so, society has a more legitimate claim upon his earnings than it does, say, upon his soldierly services in an undeclared war.  Beyond this is the danger of opening Pandora’s box.  If doves can withhold war taxes, why can’t others with­hold taxes that pay for welfare or integrated public schools?

These weaknesses must be weighed against a des­perate reality.  A war is being waged by our govern­ment that is altogether criminal and corrupting.  Mylai was not an aber­ration but a metaphor for the entire conflict.  The struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people has produced the most intensive aerial bombardment in the history of mankind, the forced evacuation to refugee camps of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the destruction of villages in order to “save” them, the torture and killing of prisoners, wanton shooting in self-proclaimed free-fire zones, the massive use of defoliating chemicals and gases, the massacre at pointblank range of unarmed women and children.  Many of these practices violate the laws of war as set forth in con­ven­tions that the U.S. government has signed.

Under ordinary circumstances, a citizen’s decision to withhold taxes could not be justified by a claim that he strongly disagrees with the way his taxes are spent.  But the Indochina war is not an ordinary occurrence; it cannot be compared, say, with public school inte­gration.  Because the war makes moral culprits of us all, it brings into play the principles set forth by the U.S. itself at Nuremberg.  And while the Nuremberg tribunal did not go so far as to say that persons who willingly pay taxes or submit to conscription are guilty of complicity in crimes committed by their gov­ern­ment, its judgments tend irresistibly in that direction.  “Indi­viduals have inter­na­tional duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state,” the tribunal ruled.  This admonition was addressed to past and future government leaders, but it is no less applicable to rank-and-file citizens.

THE STRONGEST argument against war tax withholding is that it might lead to further withholding, thereby undermining the government’s ability to promote egali­tarian goals, and ultimately to function at all.  Three points deserve consideration here.  One is that, given the enormous power of the state, the probability of an anar­chic tax rebellion is, as a practical matter, slight.  The second is that the obligation to support social order, while considerable, is not absolute; even soldiers, the Army re­minds us at Lieutenant Calley’s court-martial, should disobey some orders, what­ever the consequences may be for military discipline.

Third, there are times when it may be desirable to weaken a government’s ability to function.  More important than how smoothly a government operates is what it does, and whether it is in touch with the people.  Many American colonists felt that Parlia­ment had lost touch with the people when it passed the Stamp Act and other taxes intended to underwrite empire; a little tax resistance, they thought, along with some dumping of tea in Boston harbor, would bring England to its senses.  When the Brit­ish government failed to get the colonists’ message, Jefferson wrote — and others agreed — that even violent rebellion was justifiable.

Today, we are not ripe for armed revolt, as the colonists were in 1775, but our situa­tion is in many ways comparable.  The people are taxed, yet have no effective repre­sen­tation in the councils of empire.  The Nixon Administration, though not so remote as King George III, is out of touch with the people’s desire for peace (a sizable major­ity, accord­ing to Gallup, now want all US troops withdrawn from Indochina by the year’s end).

WHAT ARE the alternatives to voluntary payment of taxes for the Vietnamar?  At the lowest level, citizens can withhold the ten percent federal tax on telephone ser­vice, a tax which was extended avowedly for the purpose of defraying war costs.  A second option is to file a proper income tax return but to withhold a symbolic sum — $5 or $50 or the surcharge — from one’s payment.  Or one can withhold ten percent of his income tax (which is approximately the percentage of federal expenditures that went to the Vietnam war in fiscal 1970).

For people whose total obligation is involuntarily subtracted from their paychecks, two courses of action are open: apply for a war tax refund, or withhold pay­ment of the telephone tax.

When taxes are acknowledged but not fully paid, the withholder can expect the IRS to collect its debt — plus 12 percent interest — within six months to a year, usually by taking money out of the withholder’s bank account, auctioning his car or attaching his salary.  The withholder must be prepared to risk a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, but so far no war tax-withholder has been prosecuted for willful tax evasion, and there is some question whether a person who files a complete and accurate return — even if he withholds a portion of his payment — can be found guilty of willful eva­sion.

A number of antiwar groups have called for war tax withholding this year and have planned April dem­onstrations to dramatize that policy.  No one expects a loss of revenue sizable enough to hinder the war effort, but that is not their aim.  It is to show the exis­tence of a body of Americans who can no longer wait for the govern­ment to end this war at its own politically calculated pace, a body of citizens who dis­associate themselves from their government’s shameful acts.  These are not terror­ists, anarchists, or even marchers, but quiet citizens of conscience.  Not every taxpayer will count himself among them; but each of us ought to consider the alternatives we face on April 15.  We do have a choice, and cannot escape responsibility for it.