Thursday, April 15, 2004

Tax day got you down? Read Reason Magazine's lengthy, funny, and oddly touching report on the "tax honesty" movement.

    The partisans of the tax honesty movement go beyond complaining that the income tax is too high, or that out-of-control IRS agents enforce it in thuggish ways. They claim, for a dizzyingly complicated variety of reasons, that there is no legal obligation to pay it. The continued life -- and even flourishing -- of that notion, in the face of obloquy, fines, and jail sentences, says something fascinating about a peculiarly American spirit of defiance. It may even say something encouraging about what it means to live in a nation of laws, not of men.


    Not merely Protestant, the tax honesty people are strangely reminiscent of fandom -- of the comic book, fantasy, science fiction, role-playing-game variety. They have the same obsession with continuity and coherence within a created fantasy world of words. It’s just that, in this case, that world of words isn’t a multivolume fantasy epic or a long-running TV series -- it’s U.S. law. When these people try to reconcile the definition of income in this subsection of Title 26 of the U.S. Code with the definition in a 1918 Supreme Court case, it’s like hearing an argument over the inconsistencies between a supervillain’s origin as first presented in a 1965 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man and the explanation given in a 1981 edition of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.

    The tax honesty movement’s vision of the world is fantastical in another way. It is not merely obsessed with continuity; it is magical in a traditional sense. It’s devoted to the belief that the secret forces of the universe can be bound by verbal formulas if delivered with the proper ritual. There are numerous formulae in the tax honesty spellbook, with rival mages defending them. Which spell is best: The summoning of the Sovereign Citizen? The incantation of the Constitutional Definition of Income? The banishing spell of No Proper Delegation?

    The tax honesty folks similarly believe that their foe the IRS must also be bound by these grimoires of magic: that without the properly sanctified OMB number an IRS form holds no power, that without uttering the mystic word liable no authority to tax can truly exist.

    And always, always, the ultimate incantation, The Question: Where does it say that I owe income taxes? Show me the law!

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