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Is Taxation Voluntary?

Have you ever heard the claim that paying income tax is voluntary? The term “voluntary” is variously used in government documents, including the 1040 form itself, and some very naive people have actually taken this to mean that they don’t have to pay if they don’t want to. They think that “voluntary” actually means voluntary, as in the free exercise of human volition.

It’s an odd position that seems not to comprehend the meaning of the word “tax.” What makes a tax different from a contribution or a trade is that the revenue is extracted by force. You can choose not to comply just as you can choose to resist arrest. But then you must face the consequences. A truly voluntary tax is like a friendly insult, a peaceful war or a healthy cancer. The two words just don’t go together.

By the way, this point doesn’t apply to just the income tax. It is true for all taxes. You sometimes hear that excise taxes are voluntary because no one is forcing you to buy the taxed good or service. This is false. The point is that if you buy gasoline, cigarettes or anything else that is taxed at the point of sale, you have no choice but to fund the government with part of your purchase price. That is not voluntary.

Yet many people, convinced that they should take the government at its word, persist in believing otherwise. The courts have been dealing with these people for decades. They file what the government calls “frivolous lawsuits.” In fact, the IRS has heard this claim enough to actually address it on a special webpage it has created to address these and other far-flung claims made by people who imagine that they have a right to keep what they earn.

The agency writes:

“The word ‘voluntary,’ as used in Flora and in IRS publications, refers to our system of allowing taxpayers initially to determine the correct amount of tax and complete the appropriate returns, rather than have the government determine tax for them from the outset. The requirement to file an income tax return is not voluntary and is clearly set forth in Internal Revenue Code 6011(a), 6012(a), et seq. and 6072(a). See also Treas. Reg. § 1.6011-1(a).

“Any taxpayer who has received more than a statutorily determined amount of gross income is obligated to file a return. Failure to file a tax return could subject the noncomplying individual to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, as well as civil penalties. “[A]lthough Treasury regulations establish voluntary compliance as the general method of income tax collection, Congress gave the secretary of the Treasury the power to enforce the income tax laws through involuntary collection…The IRS’ efforts to obtain compliance with the tax laws are entirely proper.” United States v. Tedder, 787 F.2d 540, 542 (10th Cir. 1986).”

In other words, you are free to comply. If you choose not to comply, you could go to prison. As proof that this is law, the agency cites court cases from 1938-88. Guess what? The courts, as creations of the government, have sided with the government’s right to collect taxes from your income. But you say that this is not fair. This is not just. This is un-American. This contradicts the government’s own claim that its system is voluntary.

Well, if you are writing the dictionary, you get to define words however you want to define them. However the government uses language, the reality is that the money is being taken from you without your consent. The only real difference between the robber (such as what was once called a “highwayman”) and the government, as Lysander Spooner said, is that the robber doesn’t claim to be doing this for your own good:

“The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a ‘protector,’ and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to ‘protect’ those infatuated travelers who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road against your will, assuming to be your rightful ‘sovereign’ on account of the ‘protection’ he affords you. He does not keep ‘protecting’ you by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy if you dispute his authority or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures and insults and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.”

What strikes me about the legions of marginalized people who file “frivolous” lawsuits is not that they hate the government, as people often believe. It is not that they have lost confidence in the system or otherwise treat their public servants as their enemies.

My impression is exactly the opposite. They have actually underestimated the depth of the problem with the system. They believe that the courts really are independent and will side against the interests of the government. They imagine that the system is surely and fundamentally just and fair, and once challenged, it will take their side. They imagine that agencies of the government will stick to their word. They imagine that the system is not so corrupt as to not give them a fair hearing.

Keep in mind that there was no income tax in this country for the 126 years after the Constitution was ratified, except for a brief period during the Civil War. Even after the Constitution was amended to make income taxes possible, only a few actually paid. It was much later before it hit most every American. Before that, your income was your own, period. Imagine! Most people can’t.

The 16th Amendment represented a fundamental change in the nature of the American regime. From that point forward, there was a shift in ownership over national wealth. It belonged first to the government, and then to you only as the administrative apparatus permits.

These “frivolous” people who claim taxes are voluntary are doing what good citizens do. They are reading founding documents. They study the American Revolution. They contemplate the words of Jefferson, Paine, Madison and all the others. They take their words and ideas seriously. They look at the current system and see that it resembles the founding vision only in the most superficial ways. And they imagine that it is their right, as Americans and as human beings, to stand up to the powers that be.

What they lack is that critical intelligence to comprehend that the present regime does not agree. There is no real consent of the governed. There is no authentic social contract. The government isn’t really of, by and for the people. To realize this is the beginning of true political wisdom. On this core point, it appears that both libertarians and the tax police are in full agreement.

Jeffrey Tucker

Written By Jeffrey Tucker

I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the Chief Liberty Officer of Liberty.me, an innovative private society for publishing, learning, and networking. I'm the author of four books in the field of economics and one on early music. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is tucker@liberty.me