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Conservatives like to think of April 15—Tax Day—as the date when hard-working citizens hand over half their paychecks to the federal government so it can buy hard drugs and an HD television for every deadbeat in America. Liberals believe something similar—that taxes redistribute income from the rich and powerful to everyone else—which helps assuage their guilt over calling the cops last Christmas on the homeless man outside their condo.
Reality is less convenient for either faction: The vast majority of income taxes collected by the federal government isn't going to the poor at all—unless prison now counts as public housing—but to a military that enjoys a budget just about equal to what the rest of the world spends on guns and bombs combined. It's enough to make you want to stop paying income taxes altogether.
Corporations, the only legal persons who seem to doing well these days, don't consider it their civic duty to contribute to the federal government. Offshore tax shelters and creative accounting practices have helped 57 of the top 500 companies in the United States pay an effective tax rate of zero. And that makes the rest of us look like suckers.
If the planet's wealthiest corporations aren't paying their taxes, why should a short order cook at Denny's? To be sure, taxes in the US are not as high as they are in Sweden or France, but the average American also gets far less for his tax dollar: In Western Europe, national health care means free trips to the doctor, not a mandate to buy private insurance, while America's priorities are such that more income tax revenue goes to the Pentagon than any other government program. (The things people in need actually benefit from, like Social Security and Medicare, are funded largely by other taxes.) Factor in the cost of caring for veterans and paying interest on all that debt racked up from a century of almost constant war, and you'll find that close to half of the money collected from federal income tax is devoted to covering the expense of armed conflict in one way or another.
If you don't like that, you should know by now that voting for change hasn't changed much of anything, with Barack Obama, the only sitting president to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, proposing a record-breaking military budget the year after he won it. Refusing to give your money to a government that can literally print money might not change things in the short term. But war tax resisters, as people who refuse to pay federal income taxes as a form of protest are known, have decided they have no choice in the matter: They can’t in good conscience financially support a system that spends billions of dollars on machines of death while millions of people go hungry, and they don't believe a politician's failure to act takes away their own responsibility to do whatever they can.
“I wouldn't kill another person myself—and to pay someone else to kill people in my name with my tax dollars, it's essentially the same thing,” said David Hartsough, a Quaker peace activist in his 70s. “I don't have to look at the blood,” he told me over the phone, “but the blood is on my hands.”
Speaking from his home in Northern California, Hartsough said he has been resisting federal taxes since the war in Vietnam. For a long time, he purposely earned so little money he simply didn't owe any taxes, the most popular (and most legal) form of tax resistance. After getting married and having kids, he started earning enough that he started getting a bill from the government; these days, he pays half that bill, explaining in an attached letter to the IRS that he wants the half he does pay to go toward the Department of Health and Human Services, not all that killing stuff.