In a new article, Crawford and Afield recount Dorthy Day’s early life and spiritual journey, paying special attention to her unconventional beliefs about taxation. Day’s story began in San Francisco. A devastating earthquake in 1906 “impressed her at a young age with the power and importance of collective action in caring for the most desperate of one’s fellow citizens.” As she grew older, Day initially rejected religion and embraced anarchism, but her devotion to social justice never wavered. When she later converted to Catholicism, she grew frustrated by the lack of Catholic presence in social justice movements. At a hunger march in Washington, D.C., she “noted the lack of an organized Catholic presence at the Communist-organized march,” asking “’[W]here was the Catholic leadership in the gathering . . . ?’”
Soon after, Day founded the first issue of the Catholic Worker, a newsletter devoted to opinion writing about the injustices of war, fair labor practices, and the obligation of society to provide food, clothing, and shelter to the poor. Day’s personal convictions included a commitment to pacifism and the belief that people have a moral obligation to provide for the poor. From Day’s perspective, the federal government threatened both of those values: the bulk of taxpayers’ dollars were spent funding wars, and public social welfare programs—while sometimes necessary—improperly relieved individuals from their moral obligations to one another. Day did not want to fund a government like that.
So, she didn’t. Day was a lifetime tax evader—a conscientious objector, as it were. As the authors explain, “For Dorothy Day and others, refusing to ‘participate in war’ meant, at a most fundamental level, refusing to pay federal income taxes.” Day devoted her life to voluntary poverty and the Catholic Workers movement, “a powerful, progressive intellectual force of devout twentieth century lay Catholics who, by example, challenged their Church to demonstrate a commitment to peace, justice and dignity of the poor.” She drew no salary, though she and her colleagues did accept meals and lodging. Any money she received from book sales or other sources, she returned to the Catholic Workers. Day claimed she had no tax obligations given her circumstances—a position that the authors show to be misguided—but it’s not clear why her legal obligations mattered: Day wouldn’t have paid her taxes even if she believed she owed them.
But was her tax protest consistent with Catholic teachings? The authors consider this question in great depth, drawing on writings by Catholic theologians. As the authors explain, the prevailing Catholic thought at the time was that people do have a moral obligation to pay taxes—provided the tax system is just. Viewed from a Catholic framework, the tax system in Day’s lifetime was not perfect. On the other hand, it wasn’t necessarily an unjust system, either, and “Day’s actions arguably conflicted, at least at times, with the prevailing social teaching.” Yet, the IRS chose not to use its enforcement powers against Day, and the Catholic church now celebrates Day as a “Servant of God,” clearing a path to eventual sainthood.
What are we to take away from all of this? The authors argue that Day’s story has lessons for tax policymakers. Specifically, they argue that the government could establish a compliance-enhancing mechanism that accommodates the conscientious tax objector. The primary mechanism would increase taxpayer influence over tax revenue allocations, such as by allowing taxpayers to specify how they want their money to be spent. Since this has the potential to undermine Congressional authority if too many people participate, the authors suggest charging a fee for the option. This would allow taxpayers like Day to participate in the system, while giving them assurance that their dollars were not funding war or other causes to which they object on moral grounds.
In addition to giving taxpayers more power over their tax dollars, the authors argue that the IRS could take steps to ensure that its enforcement is just. They propose “welfare-based tax administration,” which would reverse some of the more recent trends in discriminatory enforcement. Finally, they suggest “values-based compliance communication” that would inform taxpayers about how the tax system advances social justice through programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit. According to the authors, these three mechanisms—taxpayer control, just enforcement, and communication about justice—could help draw conscientious objectors like Day back into the system.
It's hard to object to reforms that would make the tax system more just and increase taxpayers’ understanding of the system, but I have some hesitation about giving taxpayers direct control over how their tax dollars are used. That’s because, in the end, I’m not sure how many people are like Dorothy Day. Sure, there are plenty of pacifists who object to taxes—but it’s hard to imagine that many modern tax protesters are as consistently and deeply motivated by social justice and concern for the poor as Dorothy Day. She was (almost) a saint, after all. Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine that some modern taxpayers would be eager to direct their tax dollars to government programs that would have horrified Dorothy Day.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend this article to anyone interested in tax and religion, tax compliance, or tax and social justice. It’s a fascinating read.