The Death of an American Political Prisoner

English: Anti-United States Internal Revenue S...
Anti-United States Internal Revenue Service symbol. Commonly used by tax protesters and tax reform advocates in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Irwin Schiff spent much of his later life in prison. He died in prison on October 16, blind and suffering from lung cancer, having been denied “compassionate release” to die at home with his family. So, who was this Schiff fellow? A mass murderer? Perhaps a serial rapist? Well, no. Irwin Schiff’s “crime” was saying and writing things the federal government didn’t want you to hear.

He thought the income tax was an illegal scam. He refused to pay it. Based on what were obviously his genuinely held beliefs, he urged others, in several books (including one that the federal courts ordered him to stop selling — apparently they don’t teach the First Amendment in law school any more) not to pay it either.

In theory, he went to prison for “tax evasion” and “filing false tax returns.” But that dog won’t hunt. If it was about money he allegedly owed the government, he’d have been left free to generate wealth that could be seized.

Irwin Schiff was a political prisoner. Period. No ifs, ands, buts or maybes.  His legal entanglements were about two things, and two things only: Shutting him up and making an example of him. If people listen to Irwin Schiff, they might emulate him and stop sending money to Washington. QED, Irwin Schiff must be silenced and caged.

At some point I guess I’m expected to assure you that I don’t agree with Schiff’s theories. I can’t say that, because I’ve never studied them thoroughly enough to form an opinion on them. I never bothered because, unlike Schiff, I’ve never operated under the illusion that it matters whether or not the income tax is “legal.” Since when does the US government (or any other government) follow laws when following laws is inconvenient?

Whether or not you or I agree with Irwin Schiff’s ideas is irrelevant to whether or not he should have been imprisoned. Suppose he was wrong six days a week and twice on Sunday. If so, so what? Let me say this again: He was imprisoned for publicly — and apparently persuasively, at least to some — disagreeing with the US government and for no other reason.

In acknowledging Irwin Schiff’s unjust imprisonment and untimely passing, take a moment to ask: Is this the America you thought you lived in? Is this the America you WANT to live in? Answer — and act accordingly.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


  • I suspect Schiff might well have been correct and the income tax is, at least technically, illegal. Not sure that makes a difference, though. Had a friend telling me the same thing and that we don’t have to pay income tax. I told him, whether illegal or not, you still have to pay.

    I asked him what he would do if some street punk put a gun to his face and demanded all his money? Would you tell the robber what he’s doing is illegal and expect him to stop? No. You’d give him the money lest harm come to you. Same as with income tax. Resisting will only cause you grief, if not harm. What happened to Schiff is the perfect example.

    I might add, even if you could get a court to declare the income tax illegal, it would be for naught. You can rest assured if such a thing happened the U.S. congress with work together to pass a legal income tax within a week of such a decision.

    • Fred,

      Exactly. I am aware of a number of theories about the income tax’s constitutionality/legality. I just don’t bother to study them, because even if one of them is right, the feds have the guns and do what they want.

      I won’t tell anyone not to resist/avoid/evade the income tax. I just tell them not to expect legalistic arguments to help them if and when the gunmen come calling.

  • JdL

    And somehow I’m guessing that the MSM didn’t spend much time noting Schiff’s passing. Down the memory hole, except for people who might be thinking of getting uppity; for them, he’s meant to be a cautionary tale.