by Karen Marysdaughter
printed in Conscience, Fall 1989
There has been much debate within the war tax resistance (WTR) movement about the reasons people are slow to commit themselves to WTR, or quick to let go of it. As a war tax resister, counselor, and organizer over the past eight years, I too have been confused and frustrated about this. The fear of the IRS and of legal consequences has often been cited as the primary reason for people’s reluctance to engage in WTR. Certainly this is a factor in many people’s minds, one which is often voiced by prospective resisters, and one that the IRS and the government are careful to cultivate. But in my experience with WTR it has become clear to me that another factor is exerting a strong influence on people’s decisions whether or not to engage in WTR. That factor is the influence of money.
Money occupies a powerful place in our society. Besides its obvious power to provide the basic necessities of life and to exert political influence, it strongly affects people’s attitudes about themselves and others. For example, a person’s worth and competence are judged by how much they earn or own. The depth of someone’s love is measured by the price tag on the gifts they buy. Parental care and responsibility are judged by how well children are provided for materially. Self-love is often equated with being willing to spend money on oneself. Standards of attractiveness are based on wearing expensive clothes, and intelligence is assumed for those who attend expensive schools. In essence, having money is equated with all that is desirable in our society; the corollary, of course, is that lack of money is equated with all that is undesirable.
The influence of money on our attitudes and behavior is far-reaching and deeply-rooted. Consumerism has become a way of life in our society; people are “addicted” to acquiring things and spending money. More means better. Many people have no conception of any other lifestyle or economic system, and money’s influence on them is largely unconscious.
So how does all of this affect decision making about WTR? I think its effect is to distort people’s perceptions in two major areas. The first is people’s perceptions of affluence and financial risk. A fascinating film on the subject of affluence, which I once saw at a conference, included interviews with people from a wide range of socioeconomic levels, from a welfare mother to a very wealthy businessman. Almost no one in the film saw themselves as affluent, because there was always someone more wealthy than themselves. They compared themselves to people higher on the scale, not lower. They almost all perceived themselves as struggling to get ahead and therefore, in some way, financially insecure, even the very wealthy businessman.
What I have observed is that people who perceive themselves as being financially insecure are less likely to be willing to take financial risks, and therefore less likely to do WTR. In my experience, most people who consider WTR or engage in it are not really living on the edge economically, and they usually have financial “safety nets” and/or a community of support, even those living below taxable levels. But many perceive themselves as on the edge and unwilling to face any of the possible financial instability involved in WTR.
Financial risk seems to loom larger than other kinds of risks. For example, peace activists risk injury and death in Nicaragua, but can’t imagine living without health insurance. Our whole world risks nuclear holocaust, but voluntarily living on a low income is somehow too scary. As with affluence, we compare our financial risks to those of people who are more financially secure than we are, rather than to the vast majority of people in the world who really live on the edge.
The second area of distortion I see is people’s perceptions of self worth. People who voluntarily take financial risks, especially if they choose to live on a low income, end up dealing with all of our society’s negative attitudes toward the lack of money. Rather than being perceived, by themselves or others, as daring or willing to make sacrifices for their beliefs, they may well be perceived as incompetent, inadequate, or, at the very least, foolish. Without regular reinforcement for choosing to live at odds with the economic lifestyle of our society, I think many people who try war tax resistance get worn down by these negative attitudes and eventually give up.
I believe that long-held and firmly implanted notions about money, unless continually questioned and challenged, are likely to dominate people’s thinking about affluence, risk and self-worth. If we are to increase our numbers as a WTR movement, I think we need to include a critique of values and attitudes about money in our work and offer lots of explicit support for people who are changing their economic lifestyles in order to resist paying military taxes.
Karen Marysdaughter, a former NWTRCC coordinator, lives in Maine.