I have reached an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service regarding the frivolous filing penalty that I received a year ago relating to my war tax resistance. It has been quite a journey. I have learned many things. One of them is about conscience and acts of conscience. I have come up with more questions concerning how we individually and as a society deal with acts of conscience. I will say a little about what my statement of conscience was, then raise the following questions: what is an act of conscience? is a statement of conscience an argument? what is the impact to us as a society if we limit or discourage acts of conscience by our citizens?
In each of my tax returns during the Iraq war, I withheld the percentage of my income taxes that would have gone toward paying for war, in with the 1040 form I would include a statement of conscience. My letter would say something like “Once again I find that I cannot willingly pay all of my taxes. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I oppose war and the support of war. “
In my view a statement of conscience is not an argument, but the IRS, the TAS (tax advocacy service), and the UNM law school all saw it as an argument. I think, if it is possible, the IRS had an argument with me, but I was not arguing with them I was simply not cooperating. I see my letters as a statement of conscience. It is a form of protest, but not an argument, as I am not trying to convince anyone of my position but rather making a statement of my beliefs.
A common misunderstanding people have regards the purpose of such actions by individuals. People will ask me if I felt satisfied or if I had achieved something by this action. I have come up with the following analogy, since it is summer and the temperature is very high outside, I often turn on the swamp cooler. The effect of turning on the swamp cooler does not change the outside environment but it does impact the inside environment of our home. I feel the same way about my small act of war tax resistance. I did not stop the US invasion or the killing of people in Iraq. I did not stop that action but I did change my own inside environment, that of living with myself and being able to say that I resisted as best I could the militaristic actions of the US.
As part of my agreement with the IRS I signed a letter promising to not send them frivolous arguments. This statement is restated three times, to cover enclosing, arguing and just sending them a frivolous argument (of course as defined by the IRS). What is interesting and of concern about this is that I was not asked to agree to pay the taxes, nor to promise to pay for war. The promise exacted was to not send words that explain or argue or support an act of conscience. I often wondered about countries, whose governments were afraid of words, would censor or ban books or freedom of speech. Are we moving in this direction? What happens when we discourage conscience, discourage free speech by individuals but allow for nonpayment, allow for avoidance and corruption of our tax system by the rich and by corporations?
My favorite quote about conscience is Lillian Helman’s;
“I can not and will not cut my conscience to fit this years fashions”
I believe in both taxes and acts of conscience. I think that both are necessary in a vibrant democracy. Those who take a stand, as a minority, are willing to stand out or up, not based on winning or being part of the majority, or doing what they have been told but acting based on some inner guide that we call conscience, lend a service to the larger society. I agree with Thoreau that those acting and living lives based on conscience or goodness, act as a leven on the whole of society.