By Gerry Bill
The U.S. military used to draft our bodies for war. That practice has been suspended since 1973, although it could start up again at any time. However, the military is still drafting our dollars, in the form of taxes to pay for wars, and shows no sign of giving up any time soon on that lucrative source of funds.
Just as there are conscientious objectors who refuse to fight in wars, there are also conscientious objectors who object to being forced to pay for wars. Last month, I was privileged to interview one such objector, Steve Ratzlaff.
Ratzlaff, the retired pastor of the Mennonite Community Church in Fresno, has been resisting war taxes for 42 years. For him, it is a matter of conscience. Not surprisingly, Ratzlaff first resisted the draft of his body, becoming a conscientious objector to military service during the war in Vietnam and performing alternative service rather than going off to shoot at people.
I asked Ratzlaff about his motivation to become a conscientious objector both to war and to paying for war.
A: I grew up a Mennonite in Nebraska, and all the Mennonites at that time were opposed to war. When it came time for me to be drafted for military service in Vietnam, I filed for and received conscientious objector (CO) status, which led me into two years of alternative service in Kansas City. I soon came to the conclusion that refusing to fight in wars was not enough. Voluntarily paying for wars to be fought by others is just as bad. The draft today is of dollars, not bodies. Growing up, I was always a CO in my mind. It was natural for me to become a CO to war taxes as well. I just cannot, in good conscience, pay for war. Every year, I find I must break the law and withhold tax money in order to live with my conscience. It is not that I don’t want to pay war taxes, it is that I just can’t pay war taxes—my conscience won’t allow it.
Q: What mechanisms have you used to withhold war taxes?
A: It started with telephone tax resistance. In the Vietnam era, there was a 10% tax on part of the telephone bill specifically earmarked to pay for the war. I started by deducting that amount from payment of my telephone bill. At that time, I was not making enough money to be subject to the income tax. Income tax resistance for me and my wife, Lynette, really began in 1976 when we returned from two years in Bolivia. We decided to hold back the percentage of our tax bill that went to pay for wars as determined by the War Resisters League, usually around 50% of the income tax dollar.
Lynette’s workplace withheld taxes from her paycheck, but I was in the fortunate position of being a pastor, and churches were not required by the government to withhold taxes. I had no taxes withheld, and when we put our two incomes together, the amount withheld by Lynette’s employer was typically around 50% of our total tax liability. We would file a return without paying the other 50% and enclose a cover letter explaining that we were doing this as an act of conscience, refusing to pay the portion of our taxes that went for war. Now that I am retired, I am in a similar position, in that I can choose not to have any taxes deducted from my retirement. When my wife retires, she will have that option also, as is common with retirement plans.
Other war tax resisters use different methods. Some deliberately keep their incomes below the level of taxation. I was in that situation for a while at an earlier time in my life. Some resisters have small subsistence farms, or get by using the barter system—anything that keeps them outside the tax system. Some tax resisters withhold all their tax liability, not just a percentage. Others withhold a symbolic amount, for example, $10.40.
Q: What about your state and local taxes?
A: I don’t have the same objections to state and local taxes, so that has never been an issue for me.
Q: What does the IRS do to you when you withhold taxes?
A: They always get their money, eventually. Once I tried to hide my bank accounts, and they put a lien on my house. But, then they found the bank accounts and seized the funds from there.
Q: Does it cost them more to collect from you than from other taxpayers?
A: I have heard that it costs them about 20 times as much to collect from resisters like me as it does to collect from ordinary taxpayers. That is part of the point of tax resistance—to sufficiently raise the costs to the government to collect war taxes that they are willing to consider alternatives.
Q: What alternatives would you like to see happen? The Peace Tax Fund?
A: Yes, for a number of years I was chairman of the board of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, which lobbies Congress every year to create a legal means by which citizens could become conscientious objectors to paying war taxes. The idea is that taxpayers could, on their tax forms, stipulate that none of their taxes could be used for war. Their tax monies would go into a special fund, the Peace Tax Fund, that could be used for peaceful purposes but never for war. A bill to create such a fund has been introduced into Congress every year since 1972. Back in 1992, there were around 35 cosponsors of the bill. There was a Congressional hearing that year and a staff report that said the proposed law would actually be a revenue enhancer because of the number of people who would join the regular economy and pay their full taxes instead of living on an income below the tax threshold. Unfortunately, support for the idea has declined in recent years. However, we don’t give up. The current director of the group likes to remind us that it took 42 Congresses to get women’s suffrage enacted.
Ideally, what I would like to see is a check-off system with numerous boxes on the tax form, and the taxpayer could choose to support education, healthcare, housing, etc., even the military if they choose to tick that box.
Q: Why do you think more peace activists do not become war tax resisters?
A: Perhaps people are afraid. People who will risk arrest by openly breaking a law at a peace demonstration are for some reason afraid to openly break a tax law. People are apparently more afraid to have some money taken from them than to have themselves bodily taken off to prison. People need to be willing to take some risks. Money is the one game we need to win.
War tax resistance hits the government where it hurts the most—in the pocketbook. Money is the crux of it all. The Military Industrial Complex is a huge part of the GDP, and they are the ones driving the train. Threatening the flow of money to the Military Industrial Complex threatens its very existence.
Q: Where do you see war tax resistance going in the future?
A: Support of war tax resistance ebbs and flows. During the 1960s, when I was a college student, there was quite a bit of support for the idea. However, many of those supporters of the idea dropped out when the Vietnam War ended. Now, however, people are getting weary of war once again, and I believe support for this form of resistance to war is on the increase. At least people are talking about it more these days, and that is a good sign. The Peace Tax Fund keeps getting reintroduced with each new Congress. We have done it in about 21 Congresses so far. It took the women 42 Congresses to get suffrage, so perhaps we are about halfway there. The struggle continues.
Gerry Bill is emeritus professor of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College and is a local peace activist. He is also a war tax resister, and has no taxes withheld from his STRS retirement plan. Contact him at email@example.com.