One of the oddities of American politics is that, in broad terms, opposition to the war in Iraq is concentrated among people who like activist government at home. Conversely, some of the biggest fans of expensive military adventures resent the tax man in peace time. As a result, though the war in Iraq has divided Americans, it has, in one important way, brought us as close as we'll ever likely be to sharing a common experience: knowing that our tax dollars underwrite government actions we despise.
Many Americans groan under their tax burden when the troops are in their barracks, or complain about programs that they find useless or even pernicious. But true believers in an expansive state argue that taxes bind the citizens of a democracy in common purpose — to which only cynics and anti-social individualists could object.
But enthusiasm for conscripting people into supporting government actions often falters when it runs up against conduct that we consider odious. As the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw once ruefully noted, "I make a fortune from criticizing the policy of the government, and then hand it over to the government in taxes to keep it going."
Shaw faced an unpleasant irony, but for many people the moral dilemmas raised by taxation can be intolerable. Gun rights advocates know that money withheld from their pay fuels registration schemes and legal restrictions that they see as a danger to liberty. Drug law reformers chafe at the knowledge that raids on medical marijuana farms and other expressions of modern-day Prohibition are made possible by their contributions to state and federal coffers. Critics of the welfare state complain that their wages are tapped to underwrite programs they believe fracture families and breed dependency. And libertarian advocates of personal freedom under limited government despair that they are forced to feed the insatiable appetites of modern politicians and bureaucrats.
This tax season, opponents of the war in Iraq have to cope with the knowledge that their taxes bought the bombs that fell on Baghdad. They subsidized the military campaign that killed innocent civilians along with Saddam's soldiers. And then, when anti-war activists tried to block shipments of military supplies at the Port of Oakland, in California, police paid with money drawn from their income pounded them with wooden bullets and concussion grenades charged on their accounts.
A common reaction for people suddenly confronted by abhorrent government policies is to attempt to withhold some or all of their taxes. They may not be able to do much to slow the state on their own, but at least they won't contribute to the problem. For years, advocates of smaller government have filled the ranks of tax protesters. But wartime brings out people who usually sneer at opponents of the IRS.
Sure enough, on April 6, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that "tax protest organizations are reporting a surge in interest among anti-war activists who are considering withholding part or all of their federal income taxes as a symbolic gesture." Long-established groups like the War Resisters League, largely dormant since the Vietnam War, are suddenly fielding inquiries from people who probably never before thought they'd question the morality of taxation.
But governments have chased down scattered resisters for as long as dissenters have tried to hide a few coins from the tax man. Across the country, thousands of people refuse to pay taxes because of their heart-felt objections to a host of government policies. They may feel virtuous, but government officials rarely budge an iota on any issue as a result. And resisters must live with the knowledge that they could be seized and imprisoned at anytime by tax collectors looking to make an example to the rest of the herd.
Which brings us back to that common experience which we all now share, however briefly. War should remind us that, with resources confiscated from our paychecks, government inevitably engages in activities favored by some people and considered monstrous by others. The more expansive government becomes, the more likely that it will use tax money to pursue policies that a large percentage of the population finds morally indefensible.
Perhaps, with time, so many people will be driven to resist taxes that the government will be forced to step down from its more controversial activities or face bankruptcy. Before we get that far, however, why not consider whether coercing people into funding programs they despise is really a good idea - no matter what those programs may be.
Maybe small government isn't just a matter of ideology, but also of practicality. Funded as they are by money forcibly extracted from the population at large, politicians would do well to keep a low profile and steer clear of policies that outrage much of the public.
J.D. Tuccille is an Arizona-based writer and political analyst.
— Arizona Daily Sun