On Oct. 16, tax protester Irwin Schiff died in prison at the age of 87 from lung cancer. Schiff was best known for claiming that the United States income tax only applies to corporate profits, and that individuals have been tricked into paying it. Schiff was serving a 162-month prison term for federal tax offenses and contempt of court that began in 2006. His son Peter had asked for a compassionate release of Irwin as he neared death, but this request was tied up in bureaucratic limbo at the time of death. As a result, Irwin died while shackled to a hospital bed in a guarded room. Eight observations on the event follow.
1. Irwin Schiff was not a criminal by an objective moral standard. For a crime to occur by an objective moral standard, a person or their property must be aggressed against. Schiff was caged because he refused to pay taxes, helped others refuse to pay taxes, and refused to comply with the rulings of the judge during his trial. None of these activities constitute an act of aggression against a person or their property. Someone may argue that his activities caused harm to be visited upon those whom he helped to evade taxes, but the responsibility for this harm falls entirely upon those who did the harm, not upon Schiff.
2. Those who imprisoned Schiff are criminals, but will not be punished. A government is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area. This enables people in that group to do with impunity that which is criminal for anyone else to do. Because Schiff committed no act of aggression and government agents used force to kidnap and cage him, the government agents who arrested, tried, and held him prisoner committed acts of aggression against him. But because they were government agents acting in the performance of their duties as such and the government exercises a monopoly on criminal punishment, they will not be punished for their crimes against him unless vigilantes decide otherwise.
3. Challenging the government in their court system is not a recipe for success. A tax case will be heard in a government building, presided over by a government judge, argued by a government prosecutor, and decided by a government-convened jury using laws made by government legislators and procedures given to them by the government judge. This is an enormous conflict of interest that no one would accept as legitimate in a matter that does not involve the government. Imagine, for example, having a dispute with your neighbor and having the matter argued and arbitrated by his family and friends who have loyalty to him and no concern for you. No rational person would consent to this. The incentive of people who are part of the state is to encourage the health of the state, which means erring on the side of expanding the size and scope of government.
4. It does not matter whether Schiff’s theories were correct. Because of the aforementioned nature of tax cases, those who sit as judges in such cases get to decide the meaning of tax laws. This need not be in keeping with common usage or dictionary definitions because there is no effective challenge to their power once the appeals process is exhausted. In fact, this need not even be consistent or impartial because they have the monopoly and their word stands unless their successors revisit a matter and decide otherwise. As such, even if Schiff’s theories were correct, the court can (and did) simply rule otherwise and punish him regardless. Again, the incentive of people who are part of the state is to encourage the health of the state, which means that whenever the law is against what government agents wish to do, its agents can simply change the law or enforce their own meaning thereof.
5. The prison system is atrocious and dehumanizing because prisoners have little value to the state. In Schiff’s final years, he was moved from a low security federal prison camp to a federal correctional facility. While this was ostensibly done to give him better access to medical care, he received no medical care to speak of. He developed cataracts that left him legally blind as well as skin cancer that metastasized to his lungs and several other places, none of which was treated. During his final month of life, he could not talk with his family because the lung cancer changed his voice enough to make it unrecognizable to the prison phone system. When he had to be hospitalized, he was kept shackled to his bed despite being in no condition to attempt escape or even offer resistance. This sort of callous disregard for prisoners occurs for two reasons. Jeffrey Tucker explains the first reason in Free Bernie Madoff:
The problem with prisoners is not that you are treated like an animal. Would that they had it so good! At the zoo, the animals are fed and groomed and cared for. They have value because they elicit affection from paying customers. Even slaves are in a better position, for at least they are valued to some small degree by their masters.
Prisoners, on the other hand, face a kind of metaphysical transformation. They go from being valued members of society to being treated like blobs of flesh taking up space. Their wardens see them as objects. They are abused by fellow inmates and live in a state of incredible degradation everyday.
All prisoners are therefore living amidst a kind of torture. It isn’t modern. It isn’t even medieval. It is contrary to all principles of civilization. Perhaps we should allow it for the most violent members of society, pending some other solution. But that doesn’t apply…to some ¾ of all the prison population.
As for the second reason…
6. Schiff was given a harsh sentencing and treatment for a chilling effect. A common tactic of government agents is to make an example out of someone, especially a high-profile defendant who is viewed unsympathetically by the public. This allows them to say, “Remember Irwin Schiff? If you don’t want to end up like him, pay us what we say you owe us.” Obedience is what government agents demand from their victims, and they will use fear and intimidation to get it if they must.
7. The state’s treatment of Schiff will likely backfire. The shortfall of the strategy of creating a chilling effect is that it breeds resentment and creates feelings of desperation. After all, people have a natural desire to destroy that which they fear. If government agents had dealt with Schiff in a more lenient manner (or perhaps had not victimized him in the first place), then future efforts of tax resistance would probably be more civil. After this, however, those who find themselves facing a lengthy prison term for refusing to pay taxes are more likely to conclude that death in battle with government agents is preferable to the sort of treatment that Schiff received, and take up arms rather than submit to government agents who attempt to arrest them.
8. Events like this will keep happening until people put a stop to it. The life and death of Irwin Schiff show us how far government agents are willing to go to enforce their edicts upon those whom they have subjugated. There are only three options when dealing with government agents: obey, be victimized, or defend yourself. The question now is, how far will we go to prevent such atrocities from happening in the future?