On Tax Revolts and Timing

Posted: 27th January 2019 by jamesgrantlaw in Criminal Law, Education, Tax, Tax revolts, unlawfulness, Zuma

I take it as uncontroversial that one is entitled to insist that a government which extracts taxes from one, must use it for legitimate government purposes. I expect also that if a government was misappropriating or misapplying those taxes, one would be entitled to, at least, divert your taxes to an entity or trust which applied such controls as are necessary to ensure that it is applied to legitimate government purposes.[1]

This would be contrary to the general rule – which appears in the various tax statutes (such as the Tax Administration Act, and the Vat Act). So, in general, there is a law which makes it illegal to fail to pay one’s taxes to the government. 

The entitlement to, at least, divert one’s taxes, would however, operate on the basis that – in the specific circumstances, prevailing at the time – one is justified in doing so – and as such, one’s conduct would not be unlawful but lawful.

Note the contrast: The law that one must pay one’s taxes creates a general obligation on everyone and it is, ordinarily (generally), illegal to contravene. This is “the law” in its abstract sense. In respect of the crime of murder, it is illegal and known as the crime of murder to: intentionally unlawfully kill another human being. 

However, as may be noted from the above definition of murder, within every law though, is a requirement that the conduct in question, to attract punishment, must be unlawful. This makes it fair to accuse the law of doublespeak and of being unnecessarily complex. But let’s untangle this – what does this mean? It means that within every law – which is only a general abstract statement, there is a requirement that, if anyone is charged with contravening a law, the court must consider the specific circumstances in which the law was allegedly contravened. If, in the specific circumstances prevailing at the time, one was entitled to do what one did, then one’s conduct was justified and not unlawful, but lawful.

So, for example, using the crime of murder, where it is generally illegal to intentionally unlawfully kill another, if, in the specific circumstances prevailing at the time, one was under an unjustified attack against one’s life, one may lawfully intentionally kill the attacker. This is known as self-defence. Thus, the general rule yields to the specific circumstances – where they make it justifiable to break the general rule. Take note though the central role played by the timing – the relevant time is the time of the attack. One may not act in self-defence, for instance, once the attack is over. One may not shoot an erstwhile attacker in the back as s/he flees. This is straightforwardly because one is no longer under attack. 

With this in mind we may now consider whether a tax revolt may be somehow permissible. It would have to be justifiable – and this is the crucial issue – given the prevailing circumstances at the time.

We must therefore consider what these circumstances are. In order to rely on a justification – for one’s conduct to be lawful, it must be true – as a matter of objective fact – that the fiscus is being plundered now. I expect there will be different views on this. What will not qualify is that we may now know that the fiscus has been plundered before.

James Grant

27 January 2019


[1] I have deliberately left out a description of what may amount to legitimate government purposes and how much misappropriation or misapplication would be required to trigger a right to divert one’s funds. I have done so to enable the discussion to progress and because the reader may easily answer these questions for her/himself. Imagine for yourself whatever is necessary to allow you to consider the principle.