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The Mistaken Assumption of Tax Resistance

Mary Martin relates the story of an ex who was a tax resister. Instead of paying his taxes to the government, which would spend them on bad things, he spent that money on good causes like supporting soup kitchens. In response to this type of leftist consequentialist tax protest (as opposed to the deontological "taxation is inherently wrong" type of tax protest sometimes found on the right), I left the following comment (bracketed bits added for this post):

I think the argument for tax resistance has to go "I spend my money on such-and-such project, which is good, and not paying taxes is what enables me to have the money to spend on that project, and the good I'm doing through that project outweighs the various harms that would ensue if I were caught and punished." But I think the idea of depriving the government of funds, or of not having "your dollars" paying for some bad government action, is based on a mistaken idea that the government (at least the US federal government) runs on a balanced budget. In reality, the feds have largely detached decisions about what to spend from any consideration of how much revenue is coming in (despite the efforts of Norquistian tax-cutters, who have deprived the government of more money than any tax resisters). So if I don't pay my taxes, the same amount of money will be spent on, say, bombing Iraqi children. [And I don't see any moral difference that it makes whether "my dollars" are involved in the bombing if withdrawing those dollars doesn't change the amount of bombing done.] And even if there were enough tax resisters to put enough of a dent in revenues to make a few members of Congress rethink their votes on spending bills, there's no guarantee they'd cut the "bad" programs -- I'd guess, cynically, that they'd be more likely to cut food stamps in order to fully fund the war than vice-versa. All the good of my hypothetical tax protest would have to come from whatever else I spend the savings on. [I can see a widespread, coordinated tax protest being a potentially effective *tactic* for pushing some sort of change. But it's the kind of thing that's worthless on a single-individual basis (somewhat like the contrast between veganism, in which each animal-free meal does an increment of additional good, versus boycotting an otherwise good product to pressure the company into withdrawing an offensive ad, which is useless unless the boycott reaches a critical mass). In case it's not clear, I don't see the consequentialist calculations as working out in favor of tax protest.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I remember right, there's a scene in The Handmaid's Tale in which the government executes some people by hanging. The crowd that has been brought in to witness the hanging must also participate in it by grabbing ropes and hauling on them together to lift the condemned by the necks.

No individual person by refusing to pick up a rope and pull would prevent the executions. No small number of individuals doing so would prevent the executions either.

But can you see a moral argument for refusing to pick up a rope and pull (leaving aside the practical risks involved in doing so)?

I think you're mistaken in thinking of individual war tax resistance and other related tax resistance as motivated only by consequentialist thinking. I think it more often than not is a matter of conscientious objection than an attempt to practically defund government actions or deter them.

10:50 AM  

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