As Americans, we juggle many identities, each one with its own set of loyalties and implied social contracts. I’m a Temple alumna: I root for the Owls. I’m from Philly: I drink “wooder.” I’m an American: At the end of the day, I agree to obey federal laws and use my vote to elect leaders who share my values.
So what happens when the values of one identity collide with the rules of another? You get a dedicated individual like my friend, Susan Lee Barton.
Anti-war, not anti-taxes
Susan Lee is an American who derives a great deal of influence from her pacifist Quaker faith. It’s a mindset that she embraces in all aspects of her life, including one that many of us don’t question: paying federal taxes.
“I’m not anti-taxes,” Susan Lee said. “I like the idea of taxes, and I think it’s our responsibility to pay taxes. I just can’t pay for murdering other people.”
Susan Lee is a war tax resister, a person who refuses to pay a portion or all of her federal taxes in order to avoid supporting military activities.
Members of faiths that emphasize pacifism, including Quakers, Mennonites and Buddhists, view war tax resistance as a spiritual calling that ensures fewer dollars are being used to fund activities with human costs. Because the money collected from federal tax returns is controlled by the spending authority of Congress, which can allocate the funds for military spending, a majority of resisters defy the government by not paying their income taxes.
The price of resistance
While the number of active war tax resisters in America is unclear, the billions of dollars dedicated to military spending are painfully obvious. In 2013, the United States led the world in defense spending — a staggering $640 billion. China, with more than four times the population of the U.S., came in a distant second with $188 billion.
War tax resistance takes different forms, from earning an annual income so small it negates the need to file a tax return, to filing a return and opting not to pay a percentage or the entire amount due.
There aren’t enough war tax resisters like Susan Lee to put a major dent into the Defense Department’s enormous slice of the federal budget, but that doesn’t deter them. In the name of peace, they are willing to forgo aspects of daily life the rest of us take for granted.
Susan Lee has a long list of things she lives without in order to make it impossible for the government to take her money. She does not have a bank account. She does not own property and cannot buy a car. She cannot have a credit card, which becomes increasingly problematic as more businesses set up shop online or flat-out refuse to accept cash.
These obstacles pale in comparison to the biggest drawback of all for Susan Lee — coping with the IRS. Navigating the many fines and requests for past-due tax bills is a full-time job for her that in recent years has required the expertise of a tax attorney.
“I think their main tactic seems to be wearing people down,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, energy, and now legal services to deal with the IRS.”
When property and bank accounts aren’t available to cover unpaid tax bills, the IRS can hit war tax resisters where it hurts: the future — by seizing portions of resisters’ social security and retirement funds. Retirement income or not, Susan Lee is ready to press on, citing a higher authority as her greatest motivation to continue.
“I am doing this out of a sense of leading, and I don’t think it is up to me to decide what is effective and not,” she said. “It’s up to me to be obedient to God.”
Drawing strength from community and history
In spite of the hardships brought on by war tax resistance, Susan Lee finds comfort in knowing she is part of a larger movement.
“I don’t see me as one person doing this,” she said. “There are lots of war tax resisters, but there are a lot of other people working toward peace. “
One of those individuals is Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who introduced the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act of 2013 to the 113th Congress. The bill would have allowed conscientious objectors to place their income, estate, and gift taxes into an account created by the Treasury to be “used for nonmilitary purposes.”
Aside from the efforts of Rep. Lewis, there have been plenty of notable tax resisters in world history. Philosopher and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau wrote his 1849 essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” following a stint in jail for not paying the mandatory poll tax in Massachusetts (a tax that helped bankroll the Mexican-American War, which would have brought slavery to new territories).
“Civil Disobedience” eventually influenced the non-violent approach of Mahatma Gandhi, who in 1930 led his famous march to the sea to resist the British tax on salt by encouraging his supporters to make their own salt from the seawater.
Gandhi may have also been inspired by the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which embraced “the spirit of no taxation without representation” using Quaker methods of passive resistance.
These three instances of tax resistance changed the course of history, paving the way to independence for a nation and the right to vote for American women. The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act may pass into law in the future, and someday there could be a checkbox on tax forms giving people the right to dictate how their tax money is spent based on their values. It is a day Susan Lee hopes for regularly.
“If everybody checked that box off, it would be a pretty strong voice saying we’re spending our money wrong.”