Selective Tax Resistance

As I follow the blow-by-blow narrative of the Battle for Health Care Reform, I am overwhelmed by nostalgia sometimes. The spectre of “socialized medicine” and “government takeover,” for instance, has been around since well before Harry Truman made his deal with John L. Lewis that first set up the link between health insurance and employment. OTOH, the AMA’s position has shifted in interesting ways. And the role of the Catholic Church and the Right-to-Birth movement are brand new. But they are raising an issue that actually goes back (within living memory) to the Vietnam War, and arguably to the origins of our nation—conscientious objection to tax payments for certain purposes.

For the benefit of those of you who were too young, or too politically uninvolved, at the time, a lot of people objected to the Vietnam War. The presence of the military draft may have been a catalyst for those objections, but ultimately a lot of people who were not subject to it found other ways to put their objections into action. Many of them refused to pay federal taxes, or that part of their federal tax burden that they deemed payable for the expenses of the Vietnam War.

For more info, see Various friends of mine refused to pay their phone tax, or deliberately worked for wages below the taxable level, or refused to file their tax returns, or filed but did not pay, or paid some specified amount less which they called the war tax deduction, or made out their tax checks to some non-military arm of government such as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (as it was then.) [I tried several of these methods at one time or another. But as the daughter of a super-ethical CPA, I could not bring myself not to file.] I also did a fair amount of legal work for tax resisters later on in my career.

Many tax resisters and their sympathizers also supported things like an alternative war tax fund—a way for tax resisters to contribute their tax money to non-military purposes. Sometimes they proposed to make this alternative available to people who could demonstrate their opposition to war in more or less the same way conscientious objectors to actual service in the military could demonstrate their opposition to the Selective Service System.

All these varied branches of the tax resistance movement had two things in common: they were a noble effort based on serious thinking about the role of taxpaying citizens vis-à-vis the military activities of their government; and they didn’t have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Or at least that was what we all thought then. Now I think maybe we should take a new look at tax resistance. Because the Religious Right, the Catholic Church and its various agencies, the GOP, and many of the Tea Partiers, have not only raised the issue of refusal to allow their taxes to fund what they view as the taking of innocent life, but have actually succeeded in legalizing it. They have rammed it through Congress, first in the form of the Hyde Amendment (first attached to appropriations bills for funding what was then the Department of Health and Human Services and, in particular, Medicaid, in 1975, and routinely attached to those appropriations bills every year since then), and more recently in the form of the Stupak Amendment to Obama’s Health Care Reform proposals.

The parallels to war tax resistance are compelling. Like war, abortion is a legal activity. Like war, it is essentially destructive. Like war, nobody is really comfortable with it, but most people reconcile themselves to it in certain limited instances. And, like war, abortion can be, and in many other countries is, financed by the taxpayer.

But, unlike war, abortion can legally be conducted without federal financing. (When a war is run entirely on private money, it ceases to be a war, and becomes privateering or criminal gang activity.)

So the American polity has essentially accepted the legitimacy of refusing to pay taxes to support certain legal activities which are morally offensive to some but not all of the citizenry. Indeed, we have extended it well beyond the boundaries respected by Vietnam War opponents, who merely asked that their own particular tax monies be kept out of the war chest. Hyde and Stupak have demanded, and gained, the right to keep anybody’s tax money from paying for abortions, even the money contributed by pro-choice taxpayers. Why do we apply that approach only to abortion? Are the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan any less innocent than American unborn children? It is a statistical certainty that some of the “collateral damage” casualties in those countries are pregnant women and their unborn children. Why are we willing to legalize tax resistance to protect American fetuses and not Iraqi and Afghan embryos? (BTW, I can’t even take credit for originating this idea. Philip Roth–not ordinarily one of my favorite authors– does a wonderful riff on it in Our Gang, published in 1971!!!, far beyond my poor power to add or detract.)

Now is the time, obviously, for opponents of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to demand for ourselves the rights won by the Pro-Birth movement. There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come again.

Red Emma

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