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My Winding Road to Voluntaryism

By Ned Netterville



First, about my name. It's a pseudonym. I use it to remain anonymous whenever I publicly mention my participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, as I do here. As you shall see, Alcoholics Anonymous, a completely voluntary institution, has played a pivotal role in my life. [Footnote 1] Beginning in my teens, I embarked on a fruitless, 30-year quest to sample every alcoholic beverage the world has to offer. Fortuitously, I was forced by the exigencies of the drinking life to surrender and join AA at the ripe age of forty-five after indulging in a considerable variety of booze, however only a small fraction of the world's total offerings. It is apparent to me in retrospect that alcohol dependency is incompatible with the degree of individual liberty afforded and the personal responsibility required by voluntaryism.

My first introduction to voluntaryism occurred in the early 1990s. I had written an article for Jacob (Bumper) Hornberger's FREEDOM DAILY, in which I asserted that the American colonies' Continental Army was an all-volunteer force that defeated the British - the superpower of the day - without recourse to taxation or conscription. Carl Watner wrote a courteous letter to the editor pointing out that several of the colonies had in fact employed taxation and conscription to provide men and equipment to Washington's revolutionary forces. Bumper forwarded Carl's letter to me. After checking out his contention, I wrote him acknowledging my error and thanking him for his correction. Carl then graciously gave me a subscription to THE VOLUNTARYIST. I soon bought a copy of his book-length anthology of articles from earlier issues of THE VOLUNTARYIST entitled, I MUST SPEAK OUT. When I finished it, I chucked my pocket copy of the Constitution in the waste basket and became a voluntaryist. His book remains on my shelves as a valuable reference and an inspiration, which I need from time to time as I once needed to drink.

I was born in 1937, and grew up as one of five boys in a rather chauvinistic, somewhat insular, Irish-Catholic social network in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. My father was a street-smart, over-the-counter stock trader who took a year off high school after his father died to help with family finances. In the midst of the Great Depression (1933), he used his small savings, hocked my mom's engagement and wedding rings, borrowed money from several of his retail-brokerage clients, and purchased a junior partnership in a startup broker-dealer firm, which he eventually owned outright.

Growing prosperous from his successful stock-market business, Dad provided a better-than-middle-class living for his five boys, who all went to work for his firm after college. My mom, the loving center of our young lives, supplied the glue that held the family together to this day, although she has passed away. Her principled adherence to her Catholic moral values undoubtedly saved me from even more trouble than I managed to get into as a rebellious adolescent.

As far back as I can remember, I hated school and any form of discipline. Apparently I suffered from what is now diagnosed as ODD - oppositional defiance disorder. I played hooky often. Two schools asked me to leave before I matriculated. Mom had to tutor me to get me through every math class. I'm sure the idea of homeschooling never occurred to mom, but she would have been a good teacher, and I might have become a good student much earlier in life if she had. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I discovered a few subjects I liked and began attaining As and Bs instead of Cs and Ds. I switched my major from Forestry to English and took all of my electives in economics and finance. Unfortunately, the economics department at Miami University (Ohio) was and still is Keynesian, which isn't really economics. Today I believe Austrian-school economics (AE) is the only brand that makes sense.

After graduating in 1960, I joined the Ohio National Guard in order to avoid being drafted into the Army for two years. I immediately spent six months on active “duty” attached to the U.S. Army. It never occurred to me that I could resist the draft, which today I consider to be the only moral way to approach military service. I spent my Army time doing everything in my power to avoid work (“duty?”). After basic training, I spent every weekday afternoon and evening in the PX drinking beer, and the weekend leaves in bars in Washington, D.C. It would be virtually impossible for a person to be less productive of value than I was those six months.

I spent the rest of the 1960s working for Dad as a proprietary stock trader, eventually becoming responsible for all trading and customer order executions. Sometime during the late 60s I came across and accepted the Foundation for Economic Education's (FEE's) offer of a free subscription to THE FREEMAN magazine. That wonderful journal introduced me to the principles of liberty through articles by Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, Hans Sennholz, James Payne and other great libertarian voices.

In January 1971, I “dropped out” of the securities business to “do my own thing,” a not-uncommon practice for that era of Vietnam-induced national angst. I traveled to Australia and New Zealand with a vague notion of immigrating, but found both countries too far down the road to socialism for my taste. I eventually purchased and operated a one-hundred year old cider mill and apple processing business and moved from suburban Cleveland to rural northeastern Ohio.

1971 was a watershed year for me in many ways. One of the company benefits I had when I worked for Dad's firm was free, professional income-tax-return preparation by the firm's CPA. In '71 for the first time I had to prepare and file a return on my own. My only income that year was one paycheck for half of January, and a large capital gain from the sale of my shares in the brokerage firm. I also lost some money that year trading stocks for my personal account both in the US and Australia while I was there, so I took the cost of the trip as a business expense on my federal tax return. I soon got a call from the IRS informing me that I was to be audited regarding my business expenses, and to get my records together!

The audit, which was only supposed to address my business (trading) income and expenses, turned out to be a full “field audit” of every item on my return, and of all of my financial records including every check written and every deposit made with an explanation of what each one represented if it wasn't self evident. When it was over I felt stripped of my dignity, privacy and freedom. The agent disallowed my trip expenses saying they weren't sufficiently related to my trading, and informed me that I owed an additional two-hundred and fifty dollars in taxes. I could appeal, of course, but I quickly calculated that an appeal, to an IRS administrator first, and then to U.S. Tax Court, would cost me several-times more than the additional tax. (I felt I would need to hire a lawyer to argue my case.) My own reading of the IRS code told me my travel expenses were a legitimate deduction, I believed the agent, knowing it would be much cheaper to pay the $250 than appeal, arbitrarily disallowed my deduction in order to cover the IRS' expenses for the hours he spent auditing my return. So I paid, but I am delighted to say that was the last federal, state or local income tax I ever paid.

Throughout the 70s I neglected to file returns. For several of those years I probably didn't owe any tax because the apple crops in northeastern Ohio failed, and my cider-mill business lost money. In 1981--after ten years without a word from the IRS--an agent came by our house to see me. Fortunately, no one was at home, for I do not know how I would have reacted. The agent left his card with instructions that I call him. To say the incident scared the hell out of my wife understates the effect it had on her. It made me both scared and angry. When I called, the agent asked why I hadn't filed any tax return since 1976. Why he didn't ask about 1972, '73, 74, and '75, I'll never know. Anyway, I told him I doubted I owed the IRS any money, but I would start to prepare those returns and get them to him within a couple of weeks. He allowed that would be acceptable.

I prepared five identical returns for 1976 through 1980, with no information other than my name and address. Across the face of each return in magic marker I wrote, “I CANNOT PROVIDE THE INFORMATION REQUESTED HEREIN UNLESS THE DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY ASSURES ME THAT IN SO DOING ALL OF MY RIGHTS AS A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES SHALL REMAIN INVIOLATE.” With that simple quid pro quo I became what the IRS at the time called an “illegal tax protester,” even though according to the First Amendment there can be nothing illegal about protesting taxes.

I had committed no crime. As a matter of fact those were the most honest tax returns I ever filed, probably more honest than any of the hundreds of millions of returns that other Americans filed during those five years. As Will Rogers said, the income tax has made liars of more Americans than golf. Americans cheat on their taxes to the extent they think they can get away with it, or at least a comprehensive IRS study showed that to be the case.

I got sober in 1982, which likely saved me from going to prison on some tax-related charge. Before sobriety my attitude toward the IRS and its agents was belligerent, to say the least.

In sobriety I began studying the Gospels. The wisdom of Jesus revealed in the Gospels plus AA's famous Twelve-Step program persuaded me of the utter futility of anger, resentment and retaliation. The Gospels also revealed that Jesus often hung out with tax collectors, calling some (Levi/Matthew) away from their tax-collecting duties, and redeeming at least one “chief” tax collector (Zacchaeus) from his sinful occupation. On the advice of Jesus (“love your enemies, pray for your persecutors”), I began praying for the IRS agents who were vigorously pursuing me. I diligently endeavored to love them and eventually forgive them. In due course I found to my surprise I had no enemies and no one persecuted me. That remains true to this day.

One of the things about the behavior of Jesus as reported in the Gospels that stood out to me was that he pointed to tax collectors as exemplars of sinfulness, yet he numbered many tax collectors among his disciples. This suggests to me that reformed tax collectors may play an important role in the tax abolition movement. Several IRS agents have already come out against the income tax and their former employer, to the cheers of those the IRS now refers to as “tax deniers,” since Congress, belatedly realizing the First Amendment assures that protesting taxes is legal, ordered the Service to do away with the “illegal tax protester” designation.

In the early 1980s when I first started studying Jesus' teaching on taxes and tax collectors, I was struck by the fact that every so-called 'Interpreter's Bible” I consulted (and I think I consulted all of them) claimed Jesus endorsed the concept of taxation and/or the legitimacy of government rule when he said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar's, but give God what is God's.” This conflicted with my libertarian beliefs that taxation was theft in violation of God's command, “Thou shall not steal.” It seemed to me that the State usurps God's authority as Lawgiver, and the story of how Israel came to have a king bears this out. (See the first book of Samuel, Chapter eight.) It was inconceivable to me that Jesus would condone what his Father forbade or condemned.

One dissenting voice among the many statist interpretations of the Gospels was that of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy taught himself Greek, translated the Gospels from early manuscripts, and produced his own consolidated version of the Gospels because he didn't trust the Russian-Orthodox Church's translation. According to Tolstoy, Jesus told Peter that he and his disciples were not obligated to pay taxes. Tolstoy was indubitably an anarchist. After witnessing a public execution in Paris, he wrote to a friend, "The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens. ... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere." Amen, brother Leo.

After some serious Gospel study, I concluded that when Jesus said, “give Caesar what is Caesar's but give God what is God's,” he meant DO NOT give Caesar (representing the State of Rome and all other human governments) ANYTHING. Sacred Jewish Scripture, which Jesus consistently cited as his authority for what he said and did, states in at least five places, “The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, “ or words to that effect, which obviously leaves nothing for poor old Caesar. Eventually I wrote a book entitled JESUS OF NAZARETH, ILLEGAL TAX PROTESTER, which I published on the Internet in 2003. It is the first comprehensive analysis of everything Jesus said and did relative to taxes and tax collectors as reported in the Gospels. (http://www.jesus-on-taxes.com/Page_7.html)

Throughout the 1980s the IRS thrust and I parried. Eventually I was required to appear with my records at an IRS office before my favorite revenue agent and her supervisor. I brought a tape recorder and a witness, and when asked to produce my records I asked to see the warrant required by the Fourth Amendment. I was dismissed, but soon thereafter I received a “summons” to Federal District Court in Akron, Ohio. I ignored the summons, and soon thereafter two armed Federal Marshals picked me up in my office and brought me before the judge. I had been scrambling to learn something of court procedures from a patriot group whose members were mostly tax resisters. The judge gave pause when I raised a question of the court's jurisdiction, but when he questioned me on the subject it became obvious to him that I didn't know what I was talking about. So he ordered me to produce my financial record and provide testimony as required by the IRS.

Back at the IRS before the same two agents, I again demanded to see a warrant before I would provide testimony or give them my records. Our meeting abruptly ended. A few days later one of the Federal Marshals came again to my office to get me. The judge gave me a choice of jail or co-operating with the IRS. Refusing the latter, I was sent to jail for “civil contempt” until such time as I would provide the IRS with what it wanted (eternity???). Other than a few one-night stands for driving under the influence or public intoxication, that was my first jail experience. After 34 days and with a big Memorial Day weekend with my family in the offing, I told the judge I would cooperate and was released. A week later before the same IRS agents, a third time, I told them regretfully I had no financial records whatsoever. I informed them I didn't keep records because I was afraid someday someone might subpoena them. After holding out for 34 days in jail, I think the agents expected my records would turn up a plethora of valuable assets. With taxes, interest, and penalties included, they thought I owed them about a quarter-million dollars. Their disappointment was palpable and worth every minute of my days in jail.

Unfortunately, I was forced by the threat of more jail time to answer all of their prying questions as they dug to uncover my hidden treasures. When the interrogation made it evident I had none, chagrin crossed their brows again. Although the meeting cost me nothing and yielded the IRS the same, being forced to answer their questions was the most mentally excruciating experience of my entire life.

Carl Watner's writing made me realize voluntaryism fit me like a glove. The influences that made me become a voluntaryist were my undiagnosed oppositional defiance disorder, FEE, AA, AE (Austrian economics), my mother's moral values, my non-payment of taxes and the pleasure of resisting them, and, last but not least, the principles Jesus preached and lived, especially nonviolence and love for all mankind, even to my would-be enemies. I am no longer defiant of human authority because I realize it is nothing but a hoax. Voluntaryism is good. Love your enemies. It befuddles them!

[Footnote 1] It is in keeping with AA tradition to remain anonymous when speaking publicly about AA. It's a humility thing. Coincidentally, AA is a truly voluntary institution. It has no rules nor regulations, no dues nor fees nor taxes, only voluntary contributions. The expenses of local AA “groups” and AA's significant worldwide services designed to provide help to alcoholics everywhere are the collective obligation of its members. AA's “Twelve Traditions,” which are the closest thing to rules, compel nothing. There are no AA authorities. Our leaders actually are our trusted servants whose only power is persuasion. Each of the multitude of local AA groups throughout the world operates autonomously. Withal, AA has proven effective at achieving its primary purpose, which is to enable its members to remain sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. No small task, which eluded the medical profession and mankind on any significant scale until AA came along in 1935. AA's 76-years of experience may one day prove instructive to the formation of a stateless society.