Lost in the latest political scandal is a simple fact: The Internal Revenue Service was acting in the public interest when it opted to train its auditing power on the Tea Party and affiliated groups.
In castigating government as the root of all evil while portraying taxation as a form of tyranny, the Tea Party is no less than a mass celebration of the evasion of the basic responsibilities of American citizenship. Common sense alone tells you that people drawn to its ranks may feel extra temptation to find ways to limit what they surrender to the rogue federal bureaucrats who have supposedly seized the nation.
The cover-up is the bad part here, as in nearly all Washington scandals. It's not the act itself that delivered the real trouble -- in this case, a campaign unleashed in the Cincinnati offices of the IRS to scrutinize with particular rigor the applications for tax-exempt status submitted by Tea Party-affiliated groups. Rather, it was what happened afterwards that poses the problem: Officials at the IRS lied to members of Congress about what was actually going on.
That's how we got here, to this full-blown scandal with all the usual rituals -- an event that lends validation to seemingly every crackpot idea a conservative group has ever leveled at the Obama administration. (The fact that the Justice Department simultaneously got caught on an overreach of its own, seizing a trove of correspondence from journalists, hardly helps the administration deflect the well-earned wrath of critics.)
But let's get back to the primary act at issue here: The IRS -- an agency loved by no one and responsible for stocking the Treasury with federal tax proceeds, due under the law -- appears to have devoted unique effort to making sure that Tea Party organizations were not fudging the paperwork in their bids to secure tax exemption.
Good for the IRS.
Like any institution, the agency has limited resources at its disposal. The notion that everyone ought to be treated the same, with auditing powers sprayed around like a lawn sprinkler, is ridiculous. Cops concentrate patrols in high-crime areas. And while we properly decry racial profiling and odious tactics like New York City's Stop and Frisk campaign -- through which people are subject to police pat-downs for no other reason than their being black and male -- no one would criticize the police for keeping an eye on people who are openly encouraging criminal behavior.
Which gets us back to the Tea Party. Here is a group that has made no effort to hide its contempt for the very institution of taxation. This is what it says on the website of the Cincinnati Tea Party: "Individuals need to have a direct connection between their efforts and the fruits of their labor. This is the magical spark that has led the United States from a loosely conglomerated political experiment into the most exceptional, strongest and most powerful nation on earth. Too many taxes and regulations ultimately serve to snuff out that spark."
The blog section of that site includes links to a host of propaganda from anti-government groups, including this link to a video produced by an outfit called "Government Gone Wild," which highlights the expansion of taxpayer-financed safety net programs such as food stamps, unemployment and Medicaid.
"You are being enslaved," declares a fear-mongering narrator, engaging in an all-too-typical depiction of poor people as freeloaders living fat on the public dime. "More and more people are becoming dependent on government to take care of them, and politicians don't like it one bit: They love it."
In short, being poor is depicted as just a con aimed at gorging on a luxurious buffet, stocked by taxpayer-financed programs like food stamps. Other than fear of enforcement, why would anyone with such beliefs bother to pay their taxes in full?
This sort of thinking is pervasive among those inclined to caricature government as inherently demonic, which is to say, the sorts of people attracted to the Tea Party. Search for "Tea Party" and "tax evasion" on the Internet and you can find a blog called Government Against the People, and a post titled "Tax Resistance Is As American As Apple Pie."
We are living in a time of startling inequality, long-term joblessness, entrenched poverty and the breakdown of middle-class opportunity. Our classrooms are crumbling. Whole cities are consumed by neglect and deterioration, while suburban communities now contend with foreclosure, homelessness and despair. Government alone cannot fix any of these problems, but government clearly has a role to play. Government must boost investment in education and spur innovation through support for research. Government must maintain a safety net for people in need. All of this costs money.
The Tea Party stands for many things, but a big part of its message is that sending money to Washington amounts to the perpetuation of a dangerous welfare state that's intent on turning America into a helpless land where our lone skill is filling out the forms to go on the dole.
Isn't it reasonable to assume that people who hold such beliefs might feel additional motivation to pursue grey areas and loopholes at tax time? Wouldn't the people who oversee federal coffers have been derelict had they not at least had a good look?
None of which justifies shortcuts in terms of due process or basic civil liberties. We live in a free society, and people can congregate and propagate and opine as they like. People should be able to vote how they choose and encourage others to do the same, while feeling secure that they will not suffer reprisals at work or under the law.
This scandal does not stem from the IRS actually levying action that contravenes the law. It's simply about whom the IRS decided to scrutinize. And the IRS had abundant reason to look carefully at the applications for tax exempt status sent in by people who are prone to portray taxes as something as base as slavery.
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