Larry was not able to attend the gathering. This paper was submitted in advance.
To be confrontatory from the outset, though I hope not unreasonable or rude: I don’t at this point believe that war tax resistance is likely to have a political effect in the foreseeable future. By “political effect” I mean an effect stopping or slowing American wars, eliminating or significantly reducing the American military budget.
I say this with great sadness; when I became a war tax resister, I believed that war tax resistance could in fact, if practiced militantly and cogently enough by enough people, have such an effect. I still think that war tax resistance is in theory a very powerful form of resistance. But I don’t think it is now having such an effect, or will have such an effect in the foreseeable future, because of who we are and because of the world we live in.
First, as noted, because of who we are. We are not, as a group — at least at the meetings and gatherings I’ve attended, local and national both, and in the electronic discussions I’ve been part of — ready to do what I think a movement has to do in order to exert power: agree on a goal, agree on demands, agree on a strategy, agree on tactics, change our behaviors in order to be in accord with goal and strategy and tactics. I don’t think we even have a clear sense of what we would demand if were in a position to demand, what changes in government and society would lead us to stop doing war tax resistance.
Rather we do the diverse things we do, we mostly support one another in doing those things — not a small matter, to be sure! — and we do not ask one another to change the things we’re doing. We do not ask token resisters to become more than token resisters, resisters who don’t file to become resisters who do file, people who live below the taxable level to live above the taxable level so as to be able to resist illegally, resisters who live above the taxable level to simplify their lives to as to live below the taxable level. Ours is a deeply laissez-faire community — for which much can be said, but no powerful movement I can think of was such a community to the extent that ours is.
I see little likelihood that this will change; it’s in fact my observation that we’re even more laissez-faire than we used to be, that there’s even less pressure on resisters than there used to be to put themselves in accord with the rules of a movement. (Compare the quite stringent rules that the Nashville lunch-counter demonstrators in 1960 had to agree to in order to participate in that powerful campaign.)
Second, because of the world we live in, which is significantly different from the world in which war tax resistance was developed, in several different ways. For one thing, as I’m sure is clear to everyone, we’re all more on the grid than we used to be, we’re more locatable, our money is more locatable, we are more likely to be levied. (The first time I was ever collected on, the IRS agent who came to do the collecting had to go from bank to bank to find out which one had my checking account — go physically, that is, step by step by step. And he had to come to my apartment to talk with me, too.) Whatever choice people have about paying taxes is diminishing. Whatever fear people have of being levied is likely to be greater, because the likelihood of being levied is also greater.
That to me seems less important, though, than a more abstract reason. War tax resistance presumes the special status of war — hence, obviously, its name. War is what we resist paying taxes for, war and not other things. Other evils we also work against, and war tax resisters have always done that, but war is the evil we combat by refusing to pay our taxes.
That works for me; war is the evil I cannot in conscience pay for, and other evils or ills I work against as a I can. But I think that distinction, between war and other evils, is no longer as powerful as it was. The powerful social movements of our time are, to oversimplify, not focused on war in particular, however opposed they may be to particular wars or excesses of the military budget; war is among the things they oppose but has no special status. I observe this in my students as well, who when I talk with them about war tax resistance are sympathetic, I think, but also puzzled by my decision to single war out for resistance rather than opposing all social ills together.
There are other aspects of our own time that seem pertinent to me, among them what I see as the declining prestige of the individual conscience, but my views on these other matters are hazier, so I’ll stop this section of my comments here.
War tax resistance remains important for me as an individual moral decision, as a spiritual exercise (I think that’s Randy Kehler’s phrase); so far it has felt importantly better to refuse taxes than to pay them, more right, more healthful to the soul (i.e., my soul in particular). And probably it’s important to maintain some living tradition of war tax resistance until a moment arrives, if it ever does, when these conditions change, the way monks and nuns preserved manuscripts and techniques of reading and writing. But neither of these reasons for doing war tax resistance has much to do with politics, which is, in the end as in the beginning, unlikely to be influenced by war tax resisters as we are at present.
I wish things were otherwise, or that I saw them differently; it’s sad for me to set out these remarks. But I don’t, not for the moment at any rate.