Should You Have to Pay Taxes for Issues You Disagree With?

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Why you should care

Because if you can’t vote on an issue, is this the way to voice discontent?

OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail with OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving the PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show. Our Third Rail with OZY question this week delves into politics: Should you be able to withhold taxes for issues you disagree with, keeping in mind there is a legal penalty? We want to hear what you have to say. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week.

OZY asked Gloria Steinem about the time she withheld taxes that would have gone to fund the Vietnam War — and whether it could be an important protest tactic of the future. In her own words, with some editing for clarity:

There have been tax revolts throughout history. I remember going to the War Resisters League to research ours. We withheld the percentage of our taxes that would have gone to the Vietnam War. We accepted the government-estimated cost to taxpayers of the Vietnam War and gave people the choice of (a) deducting the then-new 10 percent add-on for Vietnam, or (b) adding this to the 23 percent that was already going to the Vietnam War.

Though the IRS eventually took the money we withheld out of our bank accounts, none of us received the one year in prison and/or up to $10,000 in fines that section 7201 of the Internal Revenue Code can impose for willfully refusing to pay federal income taxes. Of the 421 signers of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest ads we took out in the The New York Times and elsewhere, not one was prosecuted or sentenced. The collection process alone had a nuisance value and was a way of voting when there was no other. Also, the text of our ad made the argument against the war, and invited others to join us. Despite a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how many people deducted the percentage going to the Vietnam War, I don’t know that there was any response.

The pro–Vietnam War forces legislated where our taxes went and rarely informed voters of their impact on either Vietnamese or U.S. lives. Today is similar. If people knew the consequences of refusing federal funds to poor women dependent on Medicaid for legal abortions and could withhold their taxes, I believe the other side would lose.

Currently, withholding taxes would make even more sense because the problem is less what our tax dollars are going for than what they are not going for. Instead of keeping the money, we would send it to, say, Planned Parenthood or Head Start or libraries or public schools, thus benefiting those programs.

There are always three crucial keys to this or any other civil disobedience: nonviolence, knowing the penalty and being willing to pay it.

Let us know what you think. Should you be allowed to withhold taxes for issues you disagree with? Comment below or email thirdrail@ozy.com.

* We have amended the question from its original wording to make it clear that there is a legal penalty to such an action.

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