About Tax Resistance

Tax resistance is a citizen’s refusal to pay taxes to one or all levels of government, not out of an inability to pay but rather out of principle or out of protest. Particularly in the United States, there are tax protest movements which argue that the federal collection of income tax is unconstitutional. However, tax resistance typically refers to a broader collection of movements which do not necessarily oppose the collection of taxes at all, but do oppose the collection of taxes for uses which they oppose.

– Tax Resistance –

Tax resisters argue that their tax money (or at least a portion of their taxes) will be used by the government for acts they find immoral or unconscionable (or even illegal), and therefore refuse to pay any taxes at all. In most cases, tax resisters accept that taxation in general is a proper or legal behaviour of the government, but are protesting what the government does with those taxes. This separates them from tax protestors, who argue that taxation is illegal regardless of what the revenue is eventually used for.

There are a number of potential reasons for tax resistance, although the most common one today is opposition to the military budget, to a specific ongoing war, or to the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons. For instance, pacifists argue that, because they are opposed to organized violence in all forms, paying taxes to a government which funds a war-fighting military service would be nearly as bad as joining that army themselves. Those who are not necessarily pacifists but do oppose a specific military program, like a war or nuclear weapons in general, can advance a similar argument. In other cases tax resisters oppose specific forms of taxes which they view as oppressive, like Mahatma Gandhi’s salt tax protest in India or Amish protests of social security taxes in America.

When tax resistance is an explicit form of political protest, as was the case with Gandhi, then openly defying tax-receiving institutions is an important protest tactic. However, tax resisters do not necessarily seek such high levels of publicity. Some simply refuse to pay the percentage of tax owing which they believe would be spent on the military, or illustrate their willingness to pay taxes (but not to immoral causes) by redirecting the money to a charity or some other valid cause. Still others, those who are most honest and prefer passive resistance to active defiance, simply reduce the amount of taxable income they take in, therefore reducing the amount they are required to pay.

– Tax Protest –

Note that tax resistance, as described above, is different from tax protesting, i.e. the protesting of the government’s collection of taxes in the first place. In several Western countries, but particularly in the United States, there are anti-tax movements which assert that the collection of federal income tax is unconstitutional, regardless of what purpose the money is ultimately used for. Arguments for this vary, but include the belief that the Sixteenth Amendment (which courts accept as authorization for income tax) was either improperly passed or does not in fact authorize such taxes after all, or that only gold is a legal or taxable form of money, not fiat currency (that is, bills or notes, and coins).

In practice, none of these arguments have been accepted by courts (leading to the legal ramifications discussed below). In the case of the United States, by law a tax protest and a refusal to file taxes on the above grounds is considered a frivolous tax return, which is a civil offence. Tax protestors, of course, respond that this is in turn a violation of their freedom of expression, guaranteed by the First Amendment, since it is legally preventing them from expressing their genuine opinion on an inherently political subject of interest.

It is possible to be a tax protestor and tax resister simultaneously: that is, to argue that taxes should be opposed due to reasons of conscience, but also because they are ulitmately illegal anyways. The two positions can also be one and the same: for example, it could be argued that taxes should not be paid to governments engaged in wars which are violations of international law, since by definition that would be providing funding for the commission of international crimes.

– Legal Implications –

In practice, the courts universally refuse to accept individual citizens’ refusal to pay taxes on grounds of principle or of legal protest. However, while tax protestors’ constitutional arguments are legally dismissed as frivolous, a separate legal doctrine guides the courts’ refusal to accept tax resistance arguments. The British and American legal and political tradition separates the collection of taxes from the spending of that money from the government: the first is a legal obligation of citizens, the second is a matter of political discussion and debate in Parliament. It is assumed that, if people want to influence how their taxes are spent, they will gather support from other like-minded citizens and campaign for new policies and legislation to be adopted by their elected representatives.

People who are demonstrable tax resisters and have signalled their willingness to pay tax in principle by redirecting their income or by filing only a portion of the taxes due may, in theory, have demonstrated some willingness to work with the system and therefore could be treated less harshly than tax protestors who simply refuse to work with the tax system altogether. Legally, however, it is not permissible to refuse to file taxes for any principle or out of protest.

This is not to say that tax resisters and tax protestors have had no historical impact. Tax protests have been important symbolic movements in several nationalist and revolutionary movements, including those in India (as mentioned above) and in America, where the Boston Tea Party was, of course, fundamentally a tax protest.