Tax resistance

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Gandhi making salt and disobeying the British salt production and tax laws. Gandhi at Dandi 5 April 1930.jpg
Gandhi making salt and disobeying the British salt production and tax laws.

Tax resistance is the refusal to pay tax because of opposition to the government that is imposing the tax, or to government policy, or as opposition to taxation in itself. Tax resistance is a form of direct action and, if in violation of the tax regulations, also a form of civil disobedience.

A tax is a mandatory financial charge or some other type of levy imposed upon a taxpayer by a governmental organization in order to fund various public expenditures. A failure to pay, along with evasion of or resistance to taxation, is punishable by law. Taxes consist of direct or indirect taxes and may be paid in money or as its labour equivalent.

Taxation as theft

The position that taxation is immoral because it is a form of theft is a viewpoint found in a number of newer radical political philosophies, such as American libertarianism, and marks a radical departure from conservatism and classical liberalism. Voluntaryists, anarcho-capitalists, as well as Objectivists and most minarchists and libertarians see taxation as a clear violation of the non-aggression principle.

Direct action action taken by a group intended to reveal an existing problem, highlight an alternative, or demonstrate a possible solution to a social issue

Direct action originated as a political activist term for economical and political acts in which the actors use their power to directly reach certain goals of interest, in contrast to those actions that appeal to others by, for instance, revealing an existing problem, highlighting an alternative, or demonstrating a possible solution. Both direct action and actions appealing to others can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the action participants. Examples of nonviolent direct action can include (obstructing) sit-ins, strikes, workplace occupations, street blockades or hacktivism, while violent direct action may include political violence or assaults. Tactics such as sabotage and property destruction are sometimes considered violent. By contrast, electoral politics, diplomacy, negotiation, protests and arbitration are not usually described as direct action, as they are politically mediated. Non-violent actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, and may involve a degree of intentional law-breaking where persons place themselves in arrestable situations in order to make a political statement but other actions may not violate criminal law. The aim of direct action is to either obstruct another political agent or political organization from performing some practice to which the activists object, or to solve perceived problems which traditional societal institutions are not addressing to the satisfaction of the direct action participants. Non-violent direct action has historically been an assertive regular feature of the tactics employed by social movements, including Mahatma Gandhi's Indian Independence Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.


Examples of tax resistance campaigns include those advocating home rule, such as the Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi, and those promoting women's suffrage, such as the Women's Tax Resistance League. [1] War tax resistance is the refusal to pay some or all taxes that pay for war, and may be practiced by conscientious objectors, pacifists, or those protesting against a particular war. [2]

Home rule is government of a colony, dependent country, or region by its own citizens. It is thus the power of a constituent part of a state to exercise such of the state's powers of governance within its own administrative area that have been decentralized to it by the central government.

Salt March Indian independence movement event led by Mahatma Gandhi

The Salt March, also known as the Dandi March and the Dandi Satyagraha, was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to produce salt from the seawater in the coastal village of Dandi, as was the practice of the local populace until British officials introduced taxation on salt production, deemed their sea-salt reclamation activities illegal, and then repeatedly used force to stop it. The 24-day march lasted from 12 March 1930 to 6 April 1930 as a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. It gained worldwide attention which gave impetus to the Indian independence movement and started the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. Mahatma Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers. Walking ten miles a day for 24 days, the march spanned over 240 miles.

Mahatma Gandhi Pre-eminent leader of Indian nationalism during British-ruled India

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an Indian activist who was the leader of the Indian independence movement against British colonial rule. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. The honorific Mahātmā was applied to him first in 1914 in South Africa – is now used worldwide. In India, he was also called Bapu, a term that he preferred and Gandhi ji, and is known as the Father of the Nation.

Tax resisters are distinct from "tax protesters," who deny that the legal obligation to pay taxes exists or applies to them. Tax resisters may accept that some law commands them to pay taxes but they still choose to resist taxation.


Egyptian peasants seized for non-payment of taxes during the Pyramid Age. Wells egyptian peasants taxes.jpg
Egyptian peasants seized for non-payment of taxes during the Pyramid Age.
Boston Tea Party, 16 December 1773. Boston Tea Party Currier colored.jpg
Boston Tea Party, 16 December 1773.

The earliest and most widespread forms of taxation were the corvée and tithe, both of which can be traced back to the beginning of civilization. The corvée was state-imposed forced labour on peasants too poor to pay other forms of taxation (labour in ancient Egyptian is a synonym for taxes). [3] Low taxes helped the Roman aristocracy increase their wealth, which equalled or exceeded the revenues of the central government. An emperor sometimes replenished his treasury by confiscating the estates of the "super-rich", but in the later period, the resistance of the wealthy to paying taxes was one of the factors contributing to the collapse of the Empire. [4]


Corvée is a form of unpaid, unfree labour, which is intermittent in nature and which lasts limited periods of time: typically only a certain number of days' work each year.

Tithe religious donation

A tithe is a one-tenth part of something, paid as a contribution to a religious organization or maybe compulsory tax to government. Today, tithes are normally voluntary and paid in cash, cheques, or stocks, whereas historically tithes were required and paid in kind, such as agricultural products. Several European countries operate a formal process linked to the tax system allowing some churches to assess tithes.

Civilization Complex state society

A civilization or civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification imposed by a cultural elite, symbolic systems of communication, and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.

Because some believe taxation is oppressive, governments have always struggled with tax noncompliance and resistance. [3] Indeed, it has been suggested that tax resistance played a significant role in the collapse of several empires, including the Egyptian, Roman, Spanish, and Aztec. [5]

Tax noncompliance is a range of activities that are unfavorable to a government's tax system. This may include tax avoidance, which is tax reduction by legal means, and tax evasion which is the criminal non-payment of tax liabilities. The use of the term 'noncompliance' is used differently by different authors. Its most general use describes non-compliant behaviors with respect to different institutional rules resulting in what Edgar L. Feige calls unobserved economies. Non-compliance with fiscal rules of taxation gives rise to unreported income and a tax gap that Feige estimates to be in the neighborhood of $500 billion annually for the United States.

Empire geographically extensive group of states and peoples united and ruled either by a central authority or a central figure

An empire is a sovereign state functioning as an aggregate of nations or people that are ruled over by an emperor or another kind of monarch. The territory and population of an empire is commonly of greater extent than the one of a kingdom.

Ancient Egypt ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa

Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient North Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Ancient Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes. The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.

Reports of collective tax refusal include Zealots resisting the Roman poll tax during the 1st century AD, culminating in the First Jewish–Roman War. [6] Other historic events that originated as tax revolts include the Magna Carta, the American Revolution and the French Revolution. [3]

First Jewish–Roman War war

The First Jewish–Roman War, sometimes called the Great Revolt, or The Jewish War, was the first of three major rebellions by the Jews against the Roman Empire, fought in Roman-controlled Judea, resulting in the destruction of Jewish towns, the displacement of its people and the appropriation of land for Roman military usage, besides the destruction of the Jewish Temple and polity.

Magna Carta Angevin charter

Magna Carta Libertatum, commonly called Magna Carta, is a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons' War. After John's death, the regency government of his young son, Henry III, reissued the document in 1216, stripped of some of its more radical content, in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for their cause. At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty agreed at Lambeth, where the document acquired the name Magna Carta, to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest which was issued at the same time. Short of funds, Henry reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes. His son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England's statute law.

American Revolution Political upheaval, 1775–1783

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. They defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in alliance with France and others.

War tax resisters often highlight the relationship between income tax and war. [7] In Britain income tax was introduced in 1799, to pay for weapons and equipment in preparation for the Napoleonic wars, whilst the US federal government imposed their first income tax in the Revenue Act of 1861 to help pay for the American Civil War.

Views and aims

Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience. Benjamin D. Maxham - Henry David Thoreau - Restored - greyscale - straightened.jpg
Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience .

Tax resisters come from a wide range of backgrounds with diverse ideologies and aims. For example, Henry David Thoreau and William Lloyd Garrison drew inspiration from the American Revolution and the stubborn pacifism of the Quakers. [8] Some tax resisters refuse to pay tax because their conscience will not allow them to fund war, whilst others resist tax as part of a campaign to overthrow the government. [8]

Tax resisters have been violent revolutionaries like John Adams and pacifist nonresistants like John Woolman; communists like Karl Marx and capitalists like Vivien Kellems; solitary anti-war activists like Ammon Hennacy and leaders of independence movements like Mahatma Gandhi. [8]

Leo Tolstoy, a Christian anarchist, urged government leaders to change their attitude to war and citizens to taxes:

If only each King, Emperor, and President understood that his work of directing armies is not an honourable and important duty, as his flatterers persuade him it is, but a bad and shameful act of preparation for murder — and if each private individual understood that the payment of taxes wherewith to hire and equip soldiers, and, above all, army-service itself, are not matters of indifference, but are bad and shameful actions by which he not only permits but participates in murder — then this power of Emperors, Kings, and Presidents, which now arouses our indignation, and which causes them to be murdered, would disappear of itself. [9]


As an example of the numerous tax resistance methods, below are some of the legal and illegal techniques used by war tax resisters: [10]


A resister may lower their tax payments by using legal tax avoidance techniques.

Paying under protest

Some taxpayers pay their taxes, but include protest letters along with their tax forms. Others pay in a protesting form — for instance, by writing their cheque on a toilet seat or a mock-up of a missile. Others pay in a way that creates inconvenience for the collector — for instance, by paying the entire amount in low-denomination coins. This last method is less effective in countries where small coins are legal tender only in limited amounts, allowing the tax authority legally to reject such payments; for example in England and Wales, 1p coins are legal tender only in amounts up to 20p.

Reducing taxable income and consumption

The White House Peace Vigil, started by Thomas in 1981 and supported by tax resister Ellen Thomas. PeacePark.jpg
The White House Peace Vigil, started by Thomas in 1981 and supported by tax resister Ellen Thomas.

Other tax resisters change their lifestyles so that they owe less tax. For instance; to avoid consumption taxes on alcohol, a resister might home-brew beer; to avoid excise taxes on gasoline, a resister might take up cycling; to avoid income tax, a resister may reduce their income below the tax threshold by embracing simple living or a freegan lifestyle. [11] For example, UK citizens pay no income tax if their income is below the personal allowance. In the US the equivalent tax-free annual income is the sum of the standard deduction and personal exemption, though many deductions and credits allow people to earn much more than this and still avoid income tax. [11]

Opposition to war has led some, such as Ammon Hennacy and Ellen Thomas, to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their income below the tax threshold by taking up a simple living lifestyle. [11] [12] These individuals believe that their government is engaged in immoral, unethical or destructive activities such as war, and paying taxes inevitably funds these activities. [11] [13]

These methods differ from tax evasion in that they stay within the tax laws, and they differ from tax avoidance in that the goal is to pay as little tax as possible rather than to keep as much post-tax income as possible.



A resister may decide to reduce their tax paid through illegal tax evasion. For instance, one way to evade income tax is to only work for cash-in-hand, therefore circumventing withholding tax. [14]


Some tax resisters refuse to pay all or a portion of the taxes due, but then make an equivalent donation to charity. In this way, they demonstrate that the intent of their resistance is not selfish and that they want to use a portion of their earnings to contribute to the common good.

For instance, Julia Butterfly Hill resisted about $150,000 in federal taxes, and donated that money to after school programs, arts and cultural programs, community gardens, programs for Native Americans, alternatives to incarceration, and environmental protection programs. She said:

I actually take the money that the IRS says goes to them and I give it to the places where our taxes should be going. And in my letter to the IRS I said: "I'm not refusing to pay my taxes. I'm actually paying them but I'm paying them where they belong because you refuse to do so." [15]

Groups like the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund (United States), Peace Tax Seven (United Kingdom), Netzwerk Friedenssteuer  [ de ] (Germany), and Conscience and Peace Tax International are working to legalize a form of conscientious objection to military taxation which would enable conscientious objectors to designate their taxes to be spent only on non-military budget items. [16] [17] They see this as a legalized form of war tax redirection.

Refusing specific taxes

Some resisters refuse to willingly pay only certain taxes, either because those taxes are especially noxious to them, or because they present a useful symbolic target, or because they are more easily resisted.

For instance, in the United States, many tax resisters resist the telephone federal excise tax. The tax was initiated to pay for the Spanish–American War and has frequently been raised or extended by the government during times of war. This made it an attractive symbolic target as a "war tax". Such refusal is relatively safe: because this tax is typically small, resistance very rarely triggers significant government retaliation. Phone companies will cooperate with such resisters by removing the excise tax from their phone bills and reporting their resistance to the government. [18]

Refusing to pay

The most dramatic and characteristic method of tax resistance is to refuse to pay a tax – either by quietly ignoring the tax bill or by openly declaring the refusal to pay.

Some tax resisters resist only a portion of the taxes due. For instance, some war tax resisters refuse to pay a percentage of their taxes equivalent to the military percentage of the government's budget.

Other resisters withhold a symbolic amount – for instance, in the United States, some might hold back $17.76/17.76% (symbolic of the revolutionary year 1776) or $10.40/10.4% (in tribute to Form 1040, which is used in federal income tax returns).

See also

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Tax resistance in the United States has been practiced at least since colonial times, and has played important parts in American history.


  1. Michael J. Nojeim (2004). Gandhi and King: The power of nonviolent resistance. p. 142. ISBN   9780275965747.
  2. "What is War Tax Resistance?". NWTRCC.
  3. 1 2 3 David F. Burg (2004). A World History of Tax Rebellions. pp. vi–viii. ISBN   9780203500897.
  4. Morris, p. 184.
  5. Erich Kirchler (2007). The Economic Psychology of Tax Behaviour. p. 182. Governments as far back as ancient Egypt have struggled to maintain compliance with tax laws. Indeed, it has been suggested that tax resistance has played a significant role in the collapse of several major world orders, including the Egyptian, Roman, Spanish and Aztec empires (Erard, 1997).
  6. David M. Gross, ed. (2008). We Won't Pay: A Tax Resistance Reader. pp. 1–7.
  7. "History of war tax resistance". The Peace Tax Seven.
  8. 1 2 3 David M. Gross, ed. (2008). We Won't Pay: A Tax Resistance Reader. p. Back cover.
  9. Leo Tolstoy (1900). Thou Shalt Not Kill  .
  10. "How to Refuse to Pay for War".
  11. 1 2 3 4 "Low Income/Simple Living as War Tax Resistance". NWTRCC.
  12. Matt Hagengruber (July 9, 2000). "DC protest group stands test of time". KnightRidder. I decided that when I didn't need to worry about providing for my daughter, I was going to reduce my income to below the poverty level so I wouldn't have to pay taxes, because I don't agree with the policies [of the U.S. government]
  13. Picket Line Annual Report
  14. "The Picket Line — 16 February 2006". 2006-02-16. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
  15. Smith, Gar "An Interview with Julia Butterfly Hill: Part 1" The Edge 26 May 2005
  16. The Mission of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine ; Peace Tax Seven; Netzwerk-Friedenssteuer; Conscience and Peace Tax International
  17. Olshewsky, Steve "Answering the Divine Grace of Time Archived 2012-11-30 at the Wayback Machine " Quaker Life Nov/Dec 2012
  18. "Not paying phone tax becomes war protest" San Francisco Chronicle 4 December 2005

Further reading