In the 2006 film America: Freedom to Fascism, several interviews are shown which claim that American workers do not need to pay income tax. Specifically, this clip claims that

There is no law which requires the average American worker (in the private sector) to pay a direct unapportioned tax on their labor and compensation, or services.

Is the average US worker legally required to pay income taxes, perhaps in a manner which is indirect or apportioned?

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    Since I didn't see the term used in the question, the group of people in the US that tend to make fallacious arguments like this is called the "sovereign citizens" movement. Broadly speaking, sovereign citizen arguments are almost all complete hogwash.
    – BradC
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 16:25
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    Pardon a noob answer/question - Without bogging us down in legal details, the short answer is yes, paying taxes is a legal requirement. My question is: aren't these sites curated to prevent frivolous questions that are wastes of time and space? Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 16:59
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    @Eamarkowitz The standard here is that questions should be about "notable" claims, see this FAQ for some explanation; it essentially just means that "enough" people actually believe the claim. Sovereign citizen claims are certainly fringe, but in my opinion, a feature-length documentary film with its own wikipedia page should probably be considered notable enough to justify a question here.
    – BradC
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 18:34
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    @Accumulation The conviction was for "Tax Evasion", i. e, not paying federal taxes owed. Potato - potahto.
    – Tim Nevins
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 21:16
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    @EJoshuaS: willlful failure to file or pay is in fact a crime, see 26 USC 7203. But criminal prosecution and imprisonment are costly; IRS' administrative (not even civil) powers are usually enough to collect if you actually have the money, and if you don't putting you in prison is very unlikely to improve your financial condition, so in practice the gov't wouldn't benefit from prosecuting nonpayment. For nonfiling and fraudulent filing they do need at least the threat if not reality of prison time with some people. Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 22:42

4 Answers 4


The IRS has a section of their website, The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments dedicated to explaining the flaws of popular incorrect arguments of why taxes don't have to be paid.

Specifically, it says:

The requirement to pay taxes is not voluntary. Section 1 of the Internal Revenue Code clearly imposes a tax on the taxable income of individuals, estates, and trusts, as determined by the tables set forth in that section. [...]

Furthermore, the obligation to pay tax is described in section 6151, which requires taxpayers to submit payment with their tax returns. Failure to pay taxes could subject the non-complying individual to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, as well as civil penalties.

They go on citing a number of case laws supporting this point.

Snopes agrees with this:

[I]n a legal sense, neither the obligation to file of tax returns nor to pay taxes owed is voluntary — those requirements are specifically spelled out in Title 26 of the U.S. Code, particularly Section 6151

The NY Times also agrees in their review of the film:

Arguments made in court that the income tax is invalid are so baseless that Congress has authorized fines of $25,000 for anyone who makes them.

The article goes into some more detail on the law, as well as the consequences of violating it.

For more details see also As a US citizen, what law requires me to pay income tax? at law.SE.

Regarding the movie itself, it might not be the best source. To quote Wikipedia:

The film has been criticized for its promotion of conspiracy theories, its copious factual errors, and its repeated misrepresentations of the individuals and views it purports to criticize.

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    Other resources for refuting tax-avoidance arguments are the venerable Tax Protester FAQ (since 1998!) and Jon Siegel's Income Tax Protestors Page. The latter site even has a page devoted to refuting "Freedom to Fascism". Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 13:16
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    @PlasmaHH: US citizens (and Green Card holders) have to file their income taxes and pay on US and non-US income. Interestingly (and uniquely), regardless of whether they live in the US. After the Foreign Tax Credit and the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, they may not actually owe anything - but they still need to file. Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 14:00
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    @StephanKolassa not just legal residents, illegal ones as well. Illegal immigrants pay billions of taxes every year.
    – xyious
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 19:23
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    I would add a note that while, in general, income tax must be paid, there are select groups who don't owe income tax -- off the top of my head (and therefore probably incorrectly) very-low-income and minors don't owe any income tax. However, those are narrow exceptions to an otherwise very wide rule, and don't detract from the correctness of this answer. IMO it should be added just for completeness.
    – anon
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 20:01
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    @NicHartley: minors are not per se exempt, but most are in the low-or-no-income group; in fact minors with significant unearned income, usually on assets 'given' by rich parent(s), are taxed at higher rates, often called the 'kiddie tax': formerly the parent(s)' rates, post-TCJA trust/estate rates. Some income is exempt: interest on state/local govt bonds (traditionally called 'munis' though today few are from municipalities), military combat pay and veteran's benefits, part of Social Security retirement benefit, and most Roth plan/account distributions. And gifts. Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 2:11

No it is not true. The Sixteenth Amendment was adopted in 1913, so taxes not apportioned to states are constitutional. US Code 26 Subtitle A is the relevant law.

The quoted text seems to allude to a number of arguments that income tax does not need to be paid. The IRS has a page refuting frivolous tax arguments, and anyone contemplating trying to claim that they don't need to pay income tax should read it first. Jonathan Siegel, Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, also has a similar collection of tax myths, including a page specifically dedicated to refuting the claims made in America: Freedom to Fascism.

Regarding the quoted text:

  • "(in the private sector)": Presumably refers to the contention that only federal employees need pay federal income tax. This is based on a misreading of the law, which states that the term "employee" includes federal employees (my emphasis). Some people think that "includes" means "includes only".

  • "Direct unapportioned tax": Presumably this refers to the contention that the Sixteenth Amendment was never properly ratified, or does not authorise federal income tax. No court has ever accepted this argument..

  • "Labour or compensation, or services": Presumably this refers to contentions that wages are not "income" because they were received in direct exchange for a thing of equal value (i.e. some work). The courts have never accepted this argument either.

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    An important meta point here is that effectively the law is what the courts say it is. You can't change reality with rhetoric and logical tricks. So anyone coming up with some argument why the law is something different than the courts say it is might as well be writing science fiction.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 13:47
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    I once heard a rumor the 16th amendment wasn't ratified by enough states... :)
    – rogerdpack
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 17:30
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    @rogerdpack At the time the 16th amendment was declared ratified, a statement by the Secretary of State that an amendment passed was legally sufficient to bring it into effect. Philander Knox, then Secretary of State, made such a statement. Courts have consistently held that it is way too late to challenge the constitutionality of the operation of such a conclusive presumption in the past; however, that process would certainly be considered unconstitutional today. (Imagine if Mike Pompeo simply declared that the 1st amendment had bee repealed and that his declaration was sufficient.) Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 18:46
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    @DavidSchwartz Can you offer a citation for that? According to Wikipedia, the 16th Amendment was ratified by a sufficient number of states--40, which is at least 75% of 48--before the Secretary of State ratified it. The courts might have taken up a challenge at the time, and a flat declaration without actual amendment would have been ignored; the problem is now it's established law and any quibbles about how it was amended are just that.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 23:59
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    @DavidSchwartz That the Secretary of State's powers in this regard are substantially different then as opposed to now. The Supreme Court has refused to review Congressional impeachments, so it seems likely they'd refuse to review an executive processing of an amendment. Likewise, that the Secretary at the time declaring that some amendment had passed that hadn't even been through Congress wouldn't have been slapped down by the Supreme Court, if necessary.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 0:17

Let me take a different tack on this. The statement as presented,

There is no law which requires the average American worker (in the private sector) to pay a direct unapportioned tax on their labor and compensation, or services.

is exactly (in a larger sense) correct, but this larger sense does not help the speaker.

The 16th amendment specifically permits an unapportioned income tax.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

The internal revenue code (US Code, Title 26) is enacted by Congress, imposes the various revenue taxes, and provides penalties for non-compliance. If this is not a law, I don't know what is.

Thing is, an income tax (as described in the OP) is not a direct tax, and hence does not need to be apportioned. The meaning of "direct" is often confused, and the fact that a taxpayer pays "directly" to the IRS is often the underlying source of confusion.

The Constitution provides that

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken. - Section 1, Article 9, Clause 4.

This refers to a head tax, but there are (in US law) only 3 kinds of direct taxes:

Only three taxes are definitely known to be direct: (1) a capitation [ . . . ], (2) a tax upon real property, and (3) a tax upon personal property. - Murphy v. Internal Revenue Service and United StatesLink

Direct taxes are taxes "directly" on property. Indirect taxes are taxes on transactions, or transfers of wealth. And most income falls squarely in the latter category.

In fact the apportionment/enumeration requirement is so burdensome that the Federal government has never even bothered to try for a national property tax or real estate tax. In this day of computers and networked data bases it would probably be doable, but not in the past.

Of course, you might ask, why the confusion? Well, that goes to Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Company, an 1895 Supreme Court decision that held that a tax on income derived directly from property (such as rent or dividends) was in fact a direct tax.

...taxes on real estate being indisputably direct taxes, taxes on the rents or income of real estate are equally direct taxes. Citation

It made no mention of earned income (as from a job), and so does not apply to what most see as "income tax". The decision invalidated the first general income tax, the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act of 1894, and promised to really complicate bookkeeping for any subsequent income tax. The 16th amendment was a direct response to this situation.

So, as I started out saying, the statement is precisely correct. There is no law which requires payment of a direct tax (unapportioned or otherwise) on labor, compensation or services. But. The IRS income tax on these categories is an indirect tax, and that tax must be paid. The fact that you will pay directly to the IRS does not make it a direct tax (within this context).

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    Have any arguments been made in court about imputed income (income the IRS thinks one "should' have received, without regard for whether one actually received it)? In many cases, the fact that one should have received income may be taken as prima facie evidence that one did receive it, but if someone can provide evidence that they did not receive actual income, even if they willfully acted to avoid receiving it, would the foregone ability to have received income be considered "income derived from any source"?
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 16:36
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    Good point about the exact wording and the legal definitions of such. That we must parse individual words to understand each other is one of the big reasons we tend to talk past each other. Although, usually, the person making the claim doesn't try to elaborate and explain.
    – CramerTV
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 16:47
  • @supercat - I am not a (tax) lawyer, nor do I play one on television. In other words, I have no idea. Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 0:00
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    Any chance you could provide links to the pages you quote so we can check them in context? Thanks.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 5:24
  • @Oddthinking - Done for the two which actually take some work. Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 20:24

From the Wikipedia article on this film,

The film has been criticized for its promotion of conspiracy theories, its copious factual errors, and its repeated misrepresentations of the individuals and views it purports to criticize.

More to the point, further on the same Wikipedia article notes

One of the listed stars of the film, Irwin Schiff, was sentenced on February 24, 2006 to 13 years and 7 months in prison for tax evasion and ordered to pay over $4.2 million in restitution.

So we have here a film in which claims are made that the Federal income tax is illegal. At least one of the people making these claims, Mr. Schiff, was sent to jail for not paying said tax. Thus, it would seem that either there is a huge conspiracy of governmental actors, including the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and their various minions, who are acting together in a coordinated manner to subvert the precious rights of Americans to not pay income or any other tax - or else this film is a load of hogwash.

Frankly, I'm going with "hogwash".

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    Rather than quoting Wikipedia saying some unnamed people criticised it, it would be better to see the critiques.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 5:22

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