Tax Resistance 101

An excerpt from a recent interview with Howard Waitzkin on his fifty-year history of tax resistance. Waitzkin is a medical doctor, a professor focusing on social medicine, and an activist. He is the author of The Rinky-Dink Revolution.

There are two key things to remember: First there’s nothing illegal about saying to the IRS, “I conscientiously do not believe in paying taxes for war, and I’m not going to do it. Here’s what I earned as income. Here’s what I’m paying as income tax, which is half of my calculated income tax, as required. This money that I am paying as income tax is not for war but rather for the other half of taxes that I hope goes into the good things that are done for people by governments rather than killing people. I’m going to use the half that I’m not paying specifically to help people and communities in need through the alternative funds that are set up by tax resisters.” The IRS may try to disagree with you, but there’s nothing illegal as long as you file your income tax, and are honest about what you earn.

There are rare problems that people get into with the IRS in terms of legal assets being taken away like homes and cars. The last examples that we know of happened more than 20 years ago. But there are people, usually right-wing people, who because of libertarian views, refuse to file their income tax, or cheat on their income tax by giving inaccurate information. Those things can get you into trouble. Although obviously, given the ways that billionaires and big corporations get away with not paying taxes, this happens all the time also.

The second thing to remember is that the Internal Revenue Service is a very stressed institution with extremely overworked and under-appreciated employees. The likelihood of anybody getting audited, for any reason, is extremely low. It’s below 1 percent of all income tax returns that are filed. The IRS publishes a volume each year online that gives these figures. It’s astonishing to read through what they’re up against.

Now, let’s say I do get audited after I send a truthful tax form. Let’s say they come back to me and say, “No, this isn’t okay.” Then you have appeal rights. You can respond by saying that you are a conscientious objector. In my case, I say I’m approved by the U.S. government to be a conscientious objector. I personally have had a case in U.S. District Court years ago that was handled by my dear friend and lawyer, Steve Schear. The brilliant constitutional argument actually scared the IRS so much that these very high-level delegations came to New York, where the IRS won in Judge Irving Kaufman’s court, the judge who convicted the Rosenbergs. So, I share the honor with them that I was actually a loser in his court, for me about the issue of whether conscientious objectors have to pay taxes for war. But in any case, you can appeal it through several levels.

Occasionally, the IRS has used a frivolous objection category that they can apply and that does happen occasionally. But it’s not too significant as long as you make a detailed argument in your correspondence. You can get advice about how to express this from the National Coordinating Committee and the various support groups around the country that can really help in these communications.

So, let’s say you go through the appeals in the IRS and the appeals outside the IRS; this can take several years for any one year of tax. And let’s say at the end of that, either the IRS or the court judge says, “No, we’re not allowing this.” Then they can take your money out of your bank account, or they can garnish your wages. I’ve had several situations of their doing that: for instance, after we lost in Judge Kaufman’s court, about $500 was taken out of my wages for the tax debt, for which they spent probably $50,000 of expenses by paying lawyers and bureaucrats.

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