Thomas Bushnell, BSG (thomb) wrote,
Thomas Bushnell, BSG

taxes, take two

After illuminating discussion with dpolicar, I can narrow down more precisely the point of the preceding entry on taxes and the differing perspectives of the Christian Anarchist and the Quaker approaches to taxation.

There are two distinct issues going on, and it was the conflation of them that had me tied up in knots before.

The first issue (and it is prior both in terms of importance and understanding) is that in the Christian Anarchist view, money is a nothing. It is precisely because money is valueless that paying one’s taxes is a no-brainer. Caesar comes, guns-a-blazin’, and says, “gimme your cash!” We shouldn’t try to escape the demand, or resist it, because Caesar is asking of us that we give him something of no real value. If Caesar wants to stamp his face on coins, and then say, “this is valuable,” we do not have to go along with that, and when Caesar demands back the things on which he has stamped his face, we can simply say, “yes, this valueless object: take it.”

Now this does not mean that material things are all of no value, though the Christian ought to have already agreed to that in principle. Material things have a relative and provisional value, but no lasting value. Money is lower than that still, and so what is rejected here is precisely the sense in which money is a representation or a symbol of value. To see this requires a critique of the nature of the symbolic status of money, and an investigation of the mechanisms by which money functions as a symbol of value: what are the social strategies for giving it this status? It’s too far afield here, but those strategies are, in fact, grounded in violence. It is by force of arms (and only force of arms) that money possesses the symbolic status it does. To treat it myself as having symbolic value, is then to accept that force of arms by which it is backed.

To the critique of the war tax from the Quakers and from Thoreau, money is valuable and a sign of value; and so to voluntarily give a valuable thing to further an evil end would seem to be a serious act of wrongdoing. So the Quaker and Thoreau agree that paying the war tax voluntarily is wrong, but they believe this because they incorrectly think that paying the tax furthers the evil end, and this, because they incorrectly think that money is a valuable thing.

The gospels do not contain this economic analysis, of course, but they do contain the conclusions of it: that money is dangerous, that the love of money is “the root of all evil,” that it is better not to have any, that there is something quite comical about the notion of taxation to begin with, and that the best thing there is to do with money is to give it away.

The second issue (which is secondary both in terms of importance and understanding) offers a related, but independent explanation of why Christian Anarchism and the Quaker/Thoreau strategy differ.

This one is about the attempt to coerce Caesar into doing what one wants. This is about tax-resistance as a strategy for social change. It requires a hubris to think that one has a special expertise in how the world should be run, and what is the best way to make everything come out. To be sure, it is part of the myth of democracy that we are all, simply by virtue of citizenship, experts in the art of statecraft.

If Caesar asks the Christian what he should do, the Christian’s answer should be, “Abdicate!” If Caesar says, “but I cannot abdicate!” then we are back to the rich young man, who wanted to observe the commandments and follow Jesus, but without giving up his wealth. What Thoreau and the Quakers are up to is lobbying Caesar to enact their program into law instead of some other. To be sure, there is a sort of moral progress if the rules being enforced at gunpoint are the peace-loving rules of Thoreau and the Quakers, instead of the war-loving rules of Caesar. But the mechanism of enforcement cannot be separated from what is enforced, and the consequence of enforcing peace-loving rules at gunpoint is simply that one stops being peace-loving.

So the use of tax-resistance as a strategy of changing the course of Caesar’s actions is, ultimately, an attempt to coerce Caesar into doing one’s bidding, and worse than the more mundane forms of domination, this attempt to dominate Caesar is an attempt to coerce Caesar into dominating others on one’s behalf, according to one’s program and objectives. Doubly bad, then.
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