Poisoning the Public Mind: Why Real Dissent Must Be Silenced

by Carl Watner

Murray Rothbard (and others) have identified two crucial features of the state. It possesses a monopoly on protection services within a given geographic area, and it collects its revenues by threat of and use of violence against the people living in the region it controls. It cannot tolerate any serious question regarding the legitimacy of its revenue collection procedures since without the money to pay policeman and soldiers it could not exercise its threat of coercion.

So what is likely to happen to an outspoken leader of a movement to deny the State its tax revenues? The answer to this question can be found in the life and death of Irwin Schiff. Although he was not a voluntaryist, Schiff was still perceived as a direct threat to the government.  As his friend, Jim Davies, explained, Schiff began his crusade against the illegality of the personal income tax in the early 1970s. “He stumbled on the fact that filing a 1040 tax form amounted to a confession, and [he] recognized that confessions must not be forced” or made under threat of prosecution for perjury. Since such a “filing must be voluntary,” Schiff concluded that he could legitimately stop filing his personal income tax forms. “That came to the attention of a Hartford (CT) COURANT reporter, who wrote an article about him.” That led to a TV interview and eventually Schiff “found himself on national TV debating an IRS” official and winning. “From then on, the IRS had to stop him.”

By the time he died on October 16, 2015, Schiff’s “crusade to force the government to obey its own law earned him three prison sentences,” and an injunction against selling one of his books. (Peter Schiff) In 1981, he was finally convicted of willful failure to file tax returns for the years 1974 and 1975. He was sentenced to 6 months and fined $10,000. In late 1985, he was convicted again for not filing for the years 1980, 1981, and 1982. He received a six-year sentence and served three years. In June 2003, Judge Lloyd George issued an Order of Preliminary Injunction prohibiting Schiff and two of his associates from selling Schiff’s book, THE FEDERAL MAFIA: HOW THE GOVERNMENT ILLEGALLY IMPOSES AND UNLAWFULLY COLLECTS INCOME TAXES (1990). This was the last book that he had written. In it he revealed some of the many levels of deception that he found in the legislation allegedly authorizing the personal income tax. For example, Schiff held that there was no law that makes anyone liable to pay an income tax. The injunction was issued pursuant to 26USC7408 and the penalties found in Sections 6700 and 6701. (Hall 568) Strangely enough, the prohibition did not extend to other sellers of the book, nor did it prevent Schiff from giving his book away free on his website, paynoincometaxes.com (an offer which he promptly made).

Finally in October 2005, Judge Kent Dawson of the United States District Court in Nevada “found Schiff guilty of charges including conspiracy, tax evasion, and tax fraud.” (Hall 52, Note 7) The following February he was sentenced to 151 months of imprisonment and ordered to pay $4.2 million restitution to the IRS. He was also sentenced to 11 months for contempt of court by Dawson because of his continual attempts  – contrary to the judge’s instruction – to “cite the law,“ even though this was his only defense.

During his lifetime Schiff authored several other books, all with the same theme: The government of the United States over the course of the past two centuries has exceeded its constitutional limits. As his friend, Jim Davies, put it, Schiff “passionately desired a drastically smaller government,” but he never became a voluntaryist. Schiff believed that “some small level of [government] was necessary,” but he could never explain how or at what point a “big and evil” government would morph into a “smaller and good” one. His first book appeared in 1976, and was titled THE BIGGEST CON: HOW THE GOVERNMENT IS FLEECING YOU. It was followed in 1982  with a NEW YORK TIMES best-seller, ANYONE CAN STOP PAYING INCOME TAXES. Then in 1985, he published THE GREAT INCOME TAX HOAX: WHY YOU CAN IMMEDIATELY STOP PAYING THIS ILLEGALLY ENFORCED TAX. In THE FEDERAL MAFIA, which was originally written while he was in jail, he deliberately called all three branches of our government a criminal organization bent upon deceptively and fraudulently extorting money from its “taxpayers.” One can readily see why the government wanted to literally “shut him up” by confining his body in prison and  not allowing him to call into question the legitimacy of collecting the personal income tax.

Although some of Schiff’s supporters have called THE FEDERAL MAFIA a “banned book,” in truth it was not. A book is typically banned in two ways: first, by being censored prior to publication; and second, by criminalizing its sale and distribution. “Banning has three principal targets – sedition, heresy, and obscenity. That is to say, speech and writing that goes against the government, against established religion, and against sexual convention.” (Rembar xv) So if it is unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law that would violate freedom of the press or speech, then how could Schiff be prevented from selling his book? Judge George got around this by holding that “the First Amendment does not protect false commercial speech.” (Hall 572) This is also how the Securities and Exchange Commission can silence a swindler who makes false statements that assist him in selling stocks and bonds.

In Schiff’s case, the judge tried to prevent Schiff from “poisoning the minds of the people.” There was no way that the government could allow Schiff to refuse to pay his taxes, and get away with it. The Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution were the first to use the term “poison” with regard to “contaminating” people’s minds. It was they who labeled the capitalist press “poisoners of the mind of the people.” (Reed 188) John Reed, in his book TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, observed that the communists saw that the question of freedom of the press was related to private property: “Who owns the ink, paper, and printing presses?” they asked. “Trotsky argued that the monopoly of the press by the bourgeoisie must be abolished. Otherwise it isn’t worthwhile for us to take the  power. … If we are going to nationalize the banks, then how can we tolerate the financial journals?” (Reed 188 paraphrased)

Although it has not been thoroughly documented, Lenin is supposed to have delivered a speech in Moscow in 1920, in which he asked:

Why should freedom of speech and of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should a man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

In other words, why should any one be allowed to poison the minds of the pubic? Lenin’s point was that ideas are more dangerous to the government than actual weapons.  It is also the insight upon which all political control is based. As I wrote in Issue 25 of THE VOLUNTARYIST,

State hegemony and the ability to command obedience actually grow out of ideas. It is ideology, not force or its threat, which causes most people to obey. That is why governments are so concerned about the unrestricted exposure of their people to a wide variety of ideas, particularly to those ideas which question its legitimacy. It would be suicide for a State to stand idle while it was being criticized and its power base was being undercut. If the State is to remain in control, it can never reconcile itself to unrestrained freedom of the press. Whether the State is trying to retain its legitimacy or fight for its life, as in time of war, it must generally control what the people think.

In Irwin Schiff’s life and death we see the proof (if any was ever needed) that when a  government is threatened by what it deems “poisonous ideas,” it must inevitably persecute those who advocate them. Any other group of people would be content to a let a man be a fool, if that is really what they thought he was. Then the best thing for them to do would be to encourage him to advertise his foolishness by speaking and writing. But of course, the government is the government and its institutional instinct to survive must necessarily direct it to use violence to silence its critics.


Jim Davies, “The Schiff Trial,” www.takelife back.com/irwin/. (And many thanks to Jim for reviewing this article multiple times before publication.)

Jacqueline Hall, “United States v. Schiff, Commercial Speech – Regulation or Free Speech Infringement?” 36 SETON HALL LAW REVIEW (2006), pp. 551-589.

Dennis Hevesi, “Irwin Schiff, Fervent Opponent of Federal Income Taxes, Dies at 87,” http://nyti .ms/1M0PzAF.

John Reed, TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, THE ILLUSTRATED EDITION with an Introduction by Harold Shukman, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Charles Rembar, “Censorship in America: The Legal Picture,” in Anne Haight and Chandler Grannis, BANNED BOOKS, New York: R. R. Bowker Company, 1978.

“Irwin Schiff” entry in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Peter Schiff, “Death of a Patriot,” www.schiff radio.com/death-of-a-patriot, 10/17/2015.

“Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?” http://quoteinvestigator.com/ 2011/03/02/lenin-free-press/.


Author’s Addendum:

The main thrust of this article showed how the government treated a vocal dissident and why. Although the government bureaucrats realized that Schiff posed a threat to their revenue collection, Schiff’s assertion that “there is no law” that authorizes the income tax really does not go to the heart of the matter. Schiff did not see taxation (in any form) as theft so long as it was sanctioned by the Constitution. The voluntaryist position is that no amount of constitutional approval can alter the fact that if it is wrong for A to steal from B, then it is still wrong for a large number of people to appoint C as their agent and then have C steal from B. Theft is theft regardless of the numbers of people that approve or participate in it. For more on this topic see www.voluntaryist.com/taxation.