Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Protest Trump by Withholding Taxes?

posted by Joshua on July 30, 2017 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Protest Trump by Withholding Taxes?

I am increasingly distressed by many of the things that the Trump administration is, and is not, doing. The president himself has declared that not paying taxes ‘‘makes him smart,’’ and I do not trust that my federal tax dollars will be put to good use. I want to resist the president, his cronies and their destructive agenda(s) any way I can.

Assuming I am willing to bear the legal and financial risks of being audited and caught, would it be ethical for me to redirect some or all of my federal taxes to my state taxes (I trust my governor and state government much more than I trust the president and the federal government) and/or to charitable and political causes that I believe would benefit my fellow citizens? Ben, New York, N.Y.

My response: Does anyone else see the irony of Ben saying he wants to resist someone by following him?

If you think he’s so bad, Ben, then, forgetting about where your money for a moment, how do you feel about following his behavior? In doing so, you make him your leader. Had you mentioned, say, Henry Thoreau, I might have suspected you were following a tradition of civil disobedience, but you only mention Trump. If you aren’t thinking and behaving independently but are reacting to him, he would seem the leader and you the follower, probably the opposite of your goal and how you’d like to think of yourself.

As usual, I suggest you think of the issue not in terms of abstract philosophical concepts. After all, if you did it, you’d consider it ethical while people at the IRS would likely consider unethical. You might consider it unethical for someone to withhold taxes when a candidate you liked and they didn’t withhold taxes. There is no absolute measure by which to answer your question to which everyone would agree.

As long as you’re willing to invest your time and take risk, I’d suggest finding the most effective way to spend your resources, not the most obvious or the ones that follow someone you disagree with.

Instead of asking if X is ethical, I suggest asking, “What’s the most effective way I can act given my resources and constraints?” Abstract philosophical labels conferred by newspaper columnists don’t do anything. Do you want labels or to achieve your goals?

The New York Times response:

A democratic republic like ours is a shared enterprise, in which we agree to govern ourselves under a system of rules we are all willing to respect. People who have lived under military juntas — as I did when I was young — or through a period of revolutionary anarchy will tell you that the benefits of accepting the results of democratic decision-making are almost always worth the burdens. During every administration, many people are distressed by what the president does. We owe our fellow citizens who accept election results they don’t like the respect of doing the same. That means obeying the laws, even under administrations led by people we may deplore.

Exceptions arise when the law that we are considering breaking is not just unwise but seriously immoral. Jim Crow laws (in flagrant violation of the post-Civil War constitutional guarantees) denied African-Americans the 14th Amendment’s promise of ‘‘equal protection of the laws.’’ Any citizen who cared to violate them was, I believe, morally free to do so. Indeed, decent citizens would have felt morally obliged to break them, where obeying them involved harm to others. And they would have been free as well to try to avoid the penalties for doing so.

There are also cases in which you may violate laws that are reasonable in order to draw attention to political wrongs, as when civil protesters trespass or ignore regulations on peaceable assembly. When the point of doing so is to express your moral ideas, you have to do so in plain sight, which means you must face the legal consequences. (And you should take care not to undermine the public good, especially by causing harm to others, including the police, when you do so.) This is the classic kind of civil disobedience. The two kinds of exceptions came together during the civil rights era, when Jim Crow laws were defied in public ways. Rosa Parks didn’t merely accept the risk of being caught in the white section of the Montgomery bus; being caught was the point.

Your talk of redirecting your taxes is something of a red herring. When you overpay your state taxes, the state sends you a refund. There are legal ways of reducing your federal tax burden — by giving more to charity, say — but only within set limits. What you are proposing, though, is not legal tax avoidance but illegal tax evasion, which you are hoping to get away with. That means your aim is not the public, expressive one of civil disobedience.

If you aren’t sending a message, what are you trying to achieve? Nothing practical, surely: When it comes to the federal budget, your individual tax payment isn’t even a rounding error. Perhaps, then, you want to reduce your complicity in what is going on. I am on record as thinking that these clean-hands arguments are usually exercises in moral narcissism. In any case, your taxes go to large numbers of things that you probably favor. Today nearly two-thirds of the federal budget covers so-called mandatory spending: Medicare and other health expenditures, Social Security payments, unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If secretly reducing your tax payments prevented you from being complicit with expenditures you dislike, it would also make you complicit in trying to reduce expenditures you do like.

When the president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, called for ‘‘deconstruction of the administrative state,’’ the idea was a government that collects less, spends less and does less. Against that background, withholding your taxes to protest Trump is like burning down your house to protest arson. Perhaps you disapprove of the way the E.P.A. has been hobbled by its Trump-appointed chief. Then take note: The E.P.A.’s budget this year is around $8 billion; the head of the agency gets a salary of around $170,000. Administration is costly; deconstruction is cheap. When you consider curtailing your federal payment, consider all the forms of federal spending that the White House would like to curtail.

One great virtue of a decent society is that you don’t have to think about politics all the time. But surely the right thing to do when you believe the government is behaving badly is to become politically engaged. If you want to spend money on something, spend it on supporting the causes you believe in. Argue for them with your fellow citizens; get involved in political campaigns. That’s something you can do because we’re a democratic republic. You say you’re willing to resist in any way you can. Why not pursue these public, constitutionally protected forms of resistance and make the most of this precious political inheritance? If, as you believe, we are headed in the wrong direction, it will take the active work of well-intentioned citizens to help us find the right one.


My dad married briefly in the late 1980s, for the third time, to a woman who gave birth to a baby. It was a little boy — I held him once, when I was 16, just before the marriage broke up. After the woman left him, my dad insisted that she had been unfaithful and that the child was not his. He even terminated his parental rights so he would not have to pay child support.

I put it out of my mind, until I became a parent myself. Then I began to Google the child’s name to see if I could find out anything about him. I learned that he had gone to prison for killing a friend in a drunken rage.

Just by looking at his mug shot, it seems obvious that he is my brother. I would like to initiate contact with him in prison to see if we can take a DNA test, but I’m worried about where it could all lead. Will I have an ethical obligation to support him in prison if it turns out that we are indeed siblings? Do I tell my aging father that he was wrong all these years about the child he abandoned? What if that child feels rejected all over again because my father still wants nothing to do with him? Although I strongly feel that I have a right to know whether this person is my brother, I can’t find out for certain without upending other people’s lives. What are my ethical obligations here? Amy, Chicago

My response: First: “Just by looking at his mug shot, it seems obvious that he is my brother.” tells me you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Second, your series of questions suggests low social or emotional skill on your part, at least in this situation. I’m not sure how you extrapolate from shared DNA to all the things you ask about. It sounds more like you want to believe something or to find meaning in something and so you’re inventing issues to justify your emotional intensity, apparently to justify you acting. I think the term is drama queen.

As for ethics, wouldn’t you love for the New York Times to tell you that you have an ethical obligation to contact this person? Then you could act without responsibility, justifying any accusations of minding other people’s business with, “But the New York Times told me I was ethically obliged!”

I suggest replacing your questions of ethical obligations with how to improve your social and emotional skills to create happiness for yourself, fulfilling relationships with others, and so on instead of concerns about things blowing up emotionally and socially. I suggest that from a perspective of calm and empathy, you’ll figure out what action seems best at the time and how to do it.

The New York Times response:

You feel you have a right to know whether someone is your brother. You don’t; you have a right to inquire. To establish the truth by way of a DNA test should require his consent. If you determine that he is, in fact, your brother, you will naturally generate expectations in him — and those natural expectations on his part will engender some obligations on your part. It’s an undertaking with consequences. So you should enter into this only if you are willing to deal with those consequences: the expectations you raise, the recriminations you may have to deal with and the needs of a long-term prisoner for whom contact with people outside may turn out to be very precious. Having given him that contact, it might well be cruel to withdraw it later. Of course, you should also be ready to deal with the possibility that this young man has no interest at all in satisfying your curiosity.

Whether you should tell your father about any of this is another issue. I understand that you want to make your moral views known. But unless you think there’s some good that can come from it, I’d be inclined to leave him alone. Courts do not easily approve the voluntary termination of parental rights, especially without the consent of both parents. You know little about this brief marriage. What the woman herself wanted and what your father had reason to believe at the time (regardless of what has emerged since) are both pertinent to how his actions should be assessed.

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