July 05, 2007

Could a New Federal Law Allow You to Choose to Fund Only Peaceful Programs with Your Tax Dollars?

In the previous post I addressed the practice of protesting the war by refusing to pay federal income taxes in part or in whole. I argued that this was simply not a viable form of protest. Some activists have probably foreseen that many would feel this way and have thus proposed a bill that would allow us to choose to have our federal income taxes spent only on non-military government spending. The thinking seems to be that this would achieve the same result (avoiding funding the war) as effectively or even more effectively than refusing to pay one's federal income taxes.

Unfortunately, even if this legislation is enacted, there is little reason to believe it would achieve anything concrete. Proponents of the legislation seem to know this,
saying outright that it "will have no direct effect on spending priorities." It seems the real point is to allow people to act in keeping with their moral or religious convictions rather than to have any impact on the U.S. involvement in war, which is fair enough. The bill, H.R. 1921, the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act, is sponsored by Congressman John Lewis, a great progressive hero and someone who knows a thing or two about acting on conscience. It would allow you to indicate on your tax form that you want your tax payments to go into a Peace Fund, which would only be used to support non-military programs.

But even if you simply want to know your own money is not going towards war, even that limited goal cannot really be accomplished in this way. Let's say this bill was enacted and a Peace Fund really was created. Everyone's tax dollars are fungible. If 20 percent of taxes went into the Peace Fund, the federal government could just use that money to fund health programs (which currently take up about 20 percent of federal expenditures) and use everyone else's tax dollar to support military and other programs. Now maybe if 70 percent of taxpayers opted for the Peace Fund, that would have a major effect on U.S. policy, but then again, if 70 percent of people opposed funding war then we'd have a President and a Congress that would end the war in Iraq and not get us into any future ones.

But even putting that aside for a moment, remember that federal taxes are not just limited to federal income taxes. Everyone who works also pays federal payroll taxes. These are supposed to fund Social Security and Medicare, but that's not exactly how it works out. Social Security is actually running a surplus, meaning it's taking in more in payroll taxes than it pays out in benefits, but the Social Security surplus is being used to fund all other government programs, including the military. This is really just more evidence that all taxpayer dollars are fungible and that it's difficult to separate funds into distinct pots of money with restricted purposes.

This might be besides the point anyway, because the federal government's decision to enter a war seems unrelated to whether or not we have the revenue to pay for it. The Bush administration has no problem with waging a deficit-financed war. That means we will have to pay the cost eventually, when we pay down the national debt by cutting important government services or paying higher taxes or both. How can anti-war taxpayers avoid paying for the war in this indirect way? They probably can't.

At the end of the day, we're all paying for this war whether we like it our not. And that's the thing about democracy. You can't really opt out. If we oppose how our government is spending our money, then we need to organize, spread the word, vote and change the government's policy. It's difficult to imagine that we'll live in a system in which people can only fund those government programs they believe in and not the ones they oppose.


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