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IRS Chief Lois Lerner: A Progressive Hero?

James Madison, a major architect of the U.S. Constitution and fourth U.S. President, said it best, all those years ago:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

It’s doubtful that Madison, or anyone else envisioning the long-term health of a free country, would have approved of the IRS in the first place.

The roots of the IRS (according to its own website) go back to the Civil War when President Lincoln and Congress, in 1862, created the position of commissioner of Internal Revenue and enacted an income tax to pay war expenses. The income tax was repealed 10 years later. Congress revived the income tax in 1894, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional the following year.

At most, the IRS was a temporary agency designed to help raise revenue during the greatest crisis of the Republic to date, and even since: the Civil War. The United States was still a limited government, at that time. There was no income tax, and there was no government providing all the goods, services, wealth transfers, and selective regulation it now provides today. Under the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, the income tax — tragically for the good of the country — became law.

It takes a lot of money (and awesome debt) to operate today’s incredibly large and dysfunctional government: Way more than it cost even to fight the Civil War.

Within the last year, evidence has emerged that Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS, probably with the approval of the current U.S. President, selectively targeted certain political groups strenuously critical of the President, starting in 2010. The former IRS Commissioner refuses to talk, and just yesterday the current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen admitted that Lerner’s computer has been destroyed — possibly melted down — and we can therefore no longer recover information. We’re led to believe the computer hard drive got damaged and there were no back-up records. Seriously?

It’s scandalous, but has not yet risen to level of a scandal. Equal or lesser things have brought down an entire Presidency (Nixon’s), or severely crippled them (Reagan’s Iran Contra and Clinton’s impeachment.) Why does Obama’s scandalous behavior not even generate a whimper from the great majority of Americans? Your guess is as good as mine.

It makes sense that the IRS would go after groups who favor limited government to the extent that some of the Tea Party groups targeted by the IRS do. If America restored the kind of government we had at the time of its founding, the power of agencies like the IRS would be severely restricted, and the agency itself — along with possibly the income tax — would probably go away. Gigantic and powerful agencies do not like to give up their power, and they’re threatened by principled opposition. Their survival requires that they stamp out, or at least curb, that opposition. Who’s better equipped to do this than the IRS, which can do almost anything it wishes in the name of collecting revenue?

As Madison wisely observed, government agencies run by human beings crave power, and have interests, just like people who don’t work in those agencies. The difference is that people in these government agencies have power no billionaire or private sector individual would ever be able to compete with — armies, prisons, guns.

Even in 2014, the vast majority of Americans naively assume that while people can and should be regulated for everything imaginable, we can largely count on the government to act in an independent, rational and basically fair way, at least most of the time. What earthly reason is there for assuming this?

The government’s job is to make sure revenue is collected. If politically organized groups fervently oppose the collection of that revenue on the scale, and with the methods, we now do it — then how do you think the government will respond? Exactly as Lois Lerner did when she headed the IRS, quite probably with the approval of her boss, who doesn’t really deny his own right to do whatever he pleases through executive order, as it is.

When the IRS was founded, it was given extra-Constitutional powers to do whatever it deems necessary to collect the huge amounts of revenue it now collects for all kinds of activities never specified, nor even implied, by the Constitution in whose name it operates.

This is the problem.

Perhaps the reason nothing will be done to hold Lois Lerner, or even Barack Obama, accountable for this scandal is that most people recognize that without the IRS, we couldn’t have the government as we know it. And the majority have already made it clear, particularly by electing Obama twice, that they want the government to keep doing at least as much as it does now — if not more.

Everything has a price, and it’s not only the financial cost. When you use government to do things like redistribute wealth in the name of “economic fairness,” or provide you with a costly and always-expanding “safety net,” then you’ll have to give that government permission to do all kinds of things you might not like, things completely at odds with the requirements and principles of freedom itself.

About half of Americans no longer even pay income taxes. Greater numbers of people than ever before collect food stamps, get Social Security benefits (even before retirement), obtain Medicare, Medicaid and all kinds of government goods and services. The lack of reaction or outrage to the IRS/Obama scandal — aside from a few Republican Congressmen going through the motions of demanding testimony — is the real story here.

Government has largely succeeded in getting enough people hooked on some version of the government “dole” that they’ll tolerate — and in some cases, even approve of– the government doing whatever it has to do in order to gather up the loot.

If the purpose of government really is to spread the wealth and attempt to distribute the good life to everyone equally, then Lois Lerner was doing what she had to do. By that standard, she was even a hero.

Threin lies the great, and unresolved, contradiction of the American experiment in freedom.

  • Tom von Mises

    Oh, it seems there’s plenty of outrage (try reading websites outside your normal domain), and there’s plenty of solutions, such as Flat Tax, Natl Sales Tax, etc.

    And your assessment, I think, of Iran Contra is way overblown.

  • ndacboss

    Yes, Lerner is a progressive’s hero, lying cheating scum quitter.

  • ndacboss

    Great article, Michael.