By Seth Berner
My name is Seth Berner. I’m a poverty lawyer and general human rights activist in Portland, Maine. At some point I realized that I could not act for change and help those in need if I blindly supported the status quo and despair by automatically paying all the taxes my government wanted me to pay.
For some people the next step is easy—just stop paying taxes altogether. This is not a solution for me. I’m not opposed to taxation. On the contrary, I believe that governments should exist to help those in need and provide and regulate programs essential to the public good; and that government cannot do its job unless those who can contribute to their cost. It is not taxation I oppose, but the way in which our governments spend our tax dollars.
And so for 20 years I have scrupulously calculated my tax obligation and withheld $50 to $100 from what I send in to the IRS. This act of conscience is symbolic in the sense that it will not change anything by itself; but also of sufficient magnitude that if others followed my example the government would notice. One hundred dollars withheld will not put an end to the feeding of the military-industrial complex and too-big-to-fail corporations, but neither will it cripple the social programs I believe in. One hundred dollars withheld is not enough to interrupt the harm that is being done, but 100,000 people times $100 will catch our government’s attention.
Since the goal was never to enrich myself I have always turned over as a donation every penny I have withheld to a group distributing funds to groups working for positive social change and aid to the needy.
And since the other goal was to be part of a movement I have always made public what I do. Each year I enclose with my tax return a letter to the IRS explaining why my payment is not in full, and that letter gets copied to my elected federal officials; the media; and other groups and people I think might want to know. When NWTRCC contacted me about my tax resistance I was asked if I was worried about “coming out of the closet,” if that might jeopardize my professional career. Of course, I do not want to lose my license to earn a living and have always balanced my needs against the needs of society, but I have never considered my tax resistance as something that should be done in secret: being public and informative is a major part of it.
I am not a hero. I am not terribly brave. Part of my decision on how to do tax resistance was my concern that I not hurt the safety net I think crucial, but in honesty part has been a desire to not hurt myself more than I can afford to lose. How much we can afford to lose is a personal decision we each must make. For some, giving everything away is an option. I am not so noble. I do not want to spend a long time in jail. I do not want to live in abject poverty. I file my returns honestly so I cannot be tried criminally. I am willing to live on an income below the poverty line; I am willing to not get the “refunds” candidates promise when they are trying to get elected, because they are seized to pay back taxes; and I am willing to risk having my bank account seized to pay back taxes. I do more than most, much, much less than some.
There is no one right way to make the world better. I think that symbolic public tax resistance is a very good way. I try to teach others the risks and rewards. Soon, hopefully, enough others will join me in doing it and saying why that our government will get a message that the public wants something other than what we are being given, than what is being done in our names.
It will be a great day when schools get everything they need and the military has to hold bake sales to buy whatever they want. That is the kind of government I would gladly support in full.
Seth Berner is running for the Maine Legislature in the November 2012 elections. Check out his campaign information at sethberner.com.