Marc Carlisle: Tax season, or the time to feed the beast
February 6, 2008
Until 1999, the actor Wesley Snipes had, as most of us do, paid his income taxes and filed a return. In 1999 and for the next six years, however, he filed nothing and paid nothing, and might have got away with it if he hadn’t begun to send demands to the IRS that the taxes he had paid before 1999 be refunded.
Last week, a jury found Snipes guilty on misdemeanor charges of failing to file income tax returns, and if it weren’t obvious he’s a few lines short of a script, he insists he’s innocent when in fact he got off easy.
In court, the law holds the IRS to a higher burden of proof than is common, for not only must the IRS prove the taxpayer broke the law, which Snipes did, but that the taxpayer did so with evil intent. Snipes stopped paying income tax on the advice of Some Dope, Esq. who told him that the Federal income tax was illegal, and as such he didn’t have to pay it.
Mr. Dope failed to tell Snipes that the courts had long ago considered and rejected the reasons he thought the tax was illegal, and Mr. Dope also failed to tell Snipes that until the law was changed or overturned, like it or not, Snipes was required to file and to pay.
In finding Snipes guilty on misdemeanor charges, the jury decided that he had no malice aforethought, and was merely either naïve or stupid, and acquitted him of felony charges which carried much greater penalties.
Civil disobedience, disobeying a law believed to be unjust in order to change the law, is part and parcel of the American tradition. Taxpayers are to a man civily disobedient. Hardly anyone admits to winning money gambling, or all of their tips, or the cash paid to them for the odd job or the stuff sold on eBay.
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I know I don’t, even though I’m probably one of the few people willing to admit a grudging respect for the job done by the IRS. For example, the IRS provides customer service the way that I want it. If you call the IRS, you talk to a real person, someone in at worst an adjacent time zone, one who can answer your question and, if necessary, make a decision.
It’s ironic that when a taxpayer has a question or a problem, the last call they will make, if they make a call to them at all, is to the agency best equipped to provide an answer. The low call volume at the IRS provides a hint as to what we expect from a government agency, as well as indicator of the effectiveness with which the IRS wields its main weapon: fear.
While we are afraid of the consequences if we don’t pay, we are almost equally unnerved of the consequences when we do file. We all have or heard (mostly heard) horror stories of the IRS audit, even though the chances of audit are about 1 in 100.
Fear is the reason the tax preparation companies can say that if you let them examine your past returns, you can expect on average more than $1,000 in refunds.
The return you prepared was as innocuous as possible, for fear that anything other than the standard deduction would invite IRS scrutiny, and they’d surely find out about your civil disobedience at the casino, at the restaurant, or online. So when a tax preparation company takes a second look, they always find legitimate deductions that you were afraid to claim, or didn’t know about because you were afraid to ask the IRS.
Any politician who says the tax code is too complicated will get cheers, and applause demanding that the IRS be run like a business. What business politicians have in mind is not clear. Do they want our taxes handled the way insurance companies deliver health care, taking fourteen cents of every dollar for overhead, while Medicare takes two cents?
Obviously, no politician has ever called a 1-800 number get customer service for his computer or from his bank. As for Snipes, if he’d refused to pay his income tax as an act of civil disobedience against, for example, the way politicians spent his money, he’d be a free man. That is, after all, the big concern, not how or how much or when taxes are collected, but how they’re spent, and it’s about time for some civil disobedience.