THE BLOG
05/22/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Does the IRS Have a Values Problem?

The harassment, levied by the IRS against Tea Party groups that were small enough to put up with unwarranted delays and too weak not to vigorously object, if "not necessarily illegal," as the acting IRS commissioner has claimed, represents a horrific abuse of power. That conclusion is a no brainer. As a result, the media will scream; the administration will chop heads; Congress will hold hearings. And then the same abuse -- albeit another variation -- will happen all over again.

This is not a one-time occurrence. The IRS has gone down this road before, as have other government agencies that have shut down businesses and harassed citizens based on incomplete information and misperceived, often personal, versions of justice.

I believe that abuse is deep-seated, and that fundamentally, the IRS and many other government agencies have a values problem. The problem starts with bureaucratic arrogance -- almost a sense of noblesse oblige -- and continues with belittlement of citizens who, like the Tea Party groups, are too intimidated to object. Powering down on "the little people" occurs every day across many levels of government. Unfortunately, only when the harassment reaches fever pitch or can be used politically by the other party -- and when the media gets involved -- is it decried, but it's never eliminated.

I first discovered this values problem when I was being audited by the IRS. The auditor, whose people skills would not have made him employable in public accounting, worked haltingly on the audit, with no communication to my accountant or me. After nearly a year, he emerged, proclaiming that he had accepted all our explanations and was closing the file. Then, inexplicably, he retired without concluding the audit. The local office appointed another auditor who decided that she would start the process all over.

I encountered government "service" again after my 93-year-old mother died. I had maintained a joint checking account with her, in which her Social Security check was deposited so that I could pay her monthly medical and assisted living bills. My attorney immediately informed the Social Security Administration of my mother's passing, even furnishing a death certificate, yet the automatic deposits continued -- for eight months. When, panicked, I went to the local Social Security office, the representative (comfortably sitting at her desk while I uncomfortably stood because there were no chairs) simply said that I shouldn't worry because some day they'll just debit my account. And that they did -- no talk, no notice.

About a year after these experiences, I serendipitously met an IRS internal inspection lawyer on a Florida beach. I couldn't resist asking her if she thought that the IRS and other government agencies had a values problem -- if employees are swayed by ego, power and their own perceived status as opposed to consciously doing the right thing. She admitted that the government in general has a huge problem with individual preferences outweighing moral values. I later asked the same question of a Social Security hearing officer who also acknowledged that within his agency, values are often secondary.

The examples of government disregard and disrespect -- if not outright abuse -- go on and on. A prominent real estate broker, who worked for the FDIC, told me horror stories about houses that should not have been foreclosed on but were because the agency had shut down the banks that made the loans and wanted the loans off the government's books. The borrowers were credit-worthy, their properties weren't under water, and the loans were being paid, but the government just wanted out. It's too bad that where necessity allowed government to bail out banks that were too big to fail, no moral compass swayed them to be fair to ordinary Americans.

The conundrum of "responsible" government acting irresponsibly had been predicted and has been discussed since our Nation's founding. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that since people are not angels, we often need government's benevolent intervention. But, he noted, that once we have government, we then need moral people to watch the government so that power is not abused.

Today many people hold government in disdain because they believe that officials are often arbitrary, arrogant, controlling and malevolent -- like the example we've just seen with the IRS. When government workers lose their sense of moral compass and servant leadership -- assumed prerequisites for power and authority -- government ceases being "of the people, by the people and for the people."

Government as envisioned by our founders put the citizen in the role of "the boss"(or at least "the customer") with decision-making based on moral criteria. Recognizing the importance of moral decision-making, the Coast Guard emphasizes values as essential ingredients for both performance and evaluation. No wonder that it is among the most respected of government agencies.

Social psychology experiments dealing with authority roles and human nature show that the temptation for abuse is enormous. Unless government employees are ingrained with core values that continually reinforce performance, service, and true leadership, abuse of authority will continue. Like my experiences, most will go unreported because as individuals we often feel powerless. So, we continue hating government, lumping the good together with the bad. Occasionally, we cheer when media and politicians object, because we have personally experienced government's mean side. But vindication is short-lived, until a new cycle starts again.

When officials who hold power positions act arbitrarily and without values like doing the right thing, fairness, equality, and respect -- values that we consider part of our national identity -- innocent people and ultimately the moral authority of government itself suffers.

We need principled public officials and bold citizens to hold our government accountable not just to "the people" but also to our shared values. Is that too much to ask?

Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.

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