Tax protesters are individuals who, for whatever reason, deny that they are under any obligation to pay federal and/or state income taxes, or refuse to pay their taxes for other reasons.
Their reasons for refusing to pay their taxes vary, but there are basically two categories of people who might be called “tax protesters.”
First, there are the people who acknowledge that the law requires them to pay their taxes, and they may believe that the tax laws are legitimate. However, because of fundamental disagreement with one or more government policies, they have decided to stop paying their taxes so they won’t have to pay for that activity, and to express their disagreement. They usually view this as a form of civil disobedience, and are aware of, and prepared to accept, the legal consequences.
The other category of tax protestors are the ones who believe (or claim to believe) that they don’t have to pay their taxes, usually on the grounds that the income tax is unconstitutional, or that the tax code doesn’t actually create any duty to pay income taxes.
It’s rare to speak in absolutes when discussing legal matters, but these arguments are never successful in court.
Tax Protester Arguments
High profile proponents of the “tax protest” movement come up with new arguments all the time, and it is impossible to discuss and debunk them all. However, as a general matter, you should only take tax advice from a licensed accountant or tax attorney. And any reputable source of information about tax law will not promise to relieve you of your duty to pay taxes, or tell you that you never had to pay your taxes in the first place.
What will follow is a brief discussion and debunking of some of the most common arguments made by tax protesters.
Myth: The 16th Amendment Was Not Properly Ratified
The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913, and explicitly gives the federal government the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from any source. Before this time, the federal government lacked the constitutional power to collect income taxes.
To become part of the Constitution, a proposed amendment, after being passed by Congress with a 2/3 majority vote, must be ratified by the legislatures of ¾ of the states. When individual state legislatures were considering ratifying the amendment, like any other law, each one had to draft a bill and put it to a vote. The bill contained the full text of the proposed amendment. However, the text of the proposed amendment in the bills sometimes varied from state to state. The differences were only in spelling, punctuation, or capitalization. In a time before copy machines, email, and fax machines, it’s easy to imagine how this could have happened.
What’s important, however, is that the substance of each version of the proposed amendment was identical. Every court which has considered this argument against the constitutionality of the income tax has flatly rejected it.
Myth: The Tax Code Doesn’t Actually Require Me to Pay Taxes
Some tax protesters claim that the tax code, which spans thousands of pages and goes to great length to define what is and isn’t income, as well as to lay out various tax deductions, credits, and exemptions, doesn’t actually have a provision that requires citizens to pay their taxes. Their argument boils down to “show me the law.”
Here is the law: 26 USC 6012 provides criminal penalties for failing to file a tax return, and 26 USC 6151 states that payment of any taxes owed, barring a few specific exceptions, must be made at the time the return is filed.
Myth: The IRS Must Explain Exactly Why I Have to Pay My Taxes, Within an Amount of Time I Specify
Some people claim you can avoid paying taxes if you write a letter to the IRS demanding a detailed explanation of why, exactly, you are required to pay your taxes. Further, they claim that if you put a provision in the letter saying something like “If you do not respond within 15 days, you formally relinquish any right to collect taxes from me, now and forever,” they will be bound by those terms, and if they don’t respond, you don’t have to pay.
This is, of course, false. First of all, in contract law, silence almost never constitutes an acceptance. Secondly, the IRS has plenty of information on its website about the services taxes pay for, why they’re important, and where it derives its legal authority to collect taxes from. If you send a letter requesting this information, they’ll probably be glad to send you some literature answering any legitimate questions you might have. But they will do this on their schedule, and if they don’t respond, you still have to pay your taxes.
Myth: I’m a Member of a Historically Oppressed Ethnic Group, So I Don’t Have to Pay Taxes
Throughout American history, several ethnic groups have been treated unfairly, or even oppressed. Obvious examples include African Americans, Native Hawaiians and Native Americans. While we, as a society, continue to grapple with the consequences of these actions, the law applies to everyone in the U.S. equally, regardless of race or ethnicity. This applies to both legal rights, and legal obligations, including taxes.
No court has ever held, nor does anything in the tax code provide, that there are any exemptions from tax liability based solely on the fact that one belongs to an ethnic group that has suffered injustice in the past, at the hands of the U.S. government.
Do I Need a Tax Attorney?
There is a huge amount of misinformation floating around about U.S. tax law. If you need tax advice, you should only seek it from a licensed tax attorney, or accountant. If you hear a novel legal argument which claims to prove that you don’t have to pay your taxes, you should ask a tax attorney about it, who will likely explain, in as much detail as you want, what merit that argument has, if any.