January 23, 2014
by Glenn Harlan Reynolds
At a tax symposium at Pepperdine Law School last week, former IRS chief counsel Donald Korb was asked, “On a scale of 1-10 … how damaging is the current IRS scandal?”
His answer: 9.5. Other tax experts on the panel called it “awful,” and said that it has done “tremendous damage.”
I think that’s right. And I think that the damage extends well beyond the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, I think that the government agency suffering the most damage isn’t the IRS, but the National Security Agency. Because the NSA, even more than the IRS, depends on public trust. And now that the IRS has been revealed to be a political weapon, it’s much harder for people to have faith in the NSA.
As I warned President Obama back in 2009 after he “joked” about having his enemies audited, the IRS depends on trust:
Should the IRS come to be seen as just a bunch of enforcers for whoever is in political power, the result would be an enormous loss of legitimacy for the tax system. Our income-tax system is based on voluntary compliance and honest reporting by citizens. It couldn’t possibly function if most people decided to cheat. Sure, the system is backed up by the dreaded IRS audit. But the threat is, while not exactly hollow, limited: The IRS can’t audit more than a tiny fraction of taxpayers. If Americans started acting like Italians, who famously see tax evasion as a national pastime, the system would collapse.
Since then, of course, the new “weaponized IRS” has, in fact, come to be seen as illegitimate by many more Americans. I suspect that, over time, this loss of moral legitimacy will cause many to base their tax strategies on what they think they can get away with, not on what they’re entitled to. And when they hear of someone being audited, many Americans will ask not “what did he do wrong?” but “who in government did he offend?”
This is particularly true since the Obama administration is currently changing IRS rules to muzzle Tea Partiers.
As Kimberley Strassel reports in the Wall Street Journal, Obama’s negotiating strategy on the omnibus spending bill that just passed revolved around using the IRS to keep Tea Party groups silenced:
One of the biggest fights was over GOP efforts to include language to stop the IRS from instituting a new round of 501(c)(4) targeting. The White House is so counting on the tax agency to muzzle its political opponents that it willingly sacrificed any manner of its own priorities to keep the muzzle in place. … It’s IRS targeting all over again, only this time by administration design and with the raw political goal — as House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) notes — of putting ‘Tea Party groups out of business.’
Meanwhile, the person chosen to “investigate” the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups in 2010-2012 is Barbara Bosserman, a “long-time Obama campaign donor.” So the IRS’s credibility is in no danger of being rebuilt any time soon.
Now comes the poor NSA. With the ongoing revelations that it has been vacuuming up telephone conversations from, basically, every American, the thing it needs most is for people to trust that it wouldn’t abuse these huge powers. The problem is, if the IRS can be weaponized — and it clearly has been — how confident can we be that the NSA won’t be? How confident, for that matter, can we be that it hasn’t been politically weaponized already?
Spend a little while on Twitter or in Internet comment sections and you’ll see a significant number of people who think that the NSA may have been relaying intelligence about the Mitt Romney campaign to Obama operatives, or that Chief Justice John Roberts’ sudden about-face in the Obamacare case might have been driven by some sort of NSA-facilitated blackmail.
A year ago, these kinds of comments would have been dismissable as paranoid conspiracy theory. But now, while I still don’t think they’re true, they’re no longer obviously crazy. And that’s Obama’s legacy: a government that makes paranoid conspiracy theories seem possibly sane.
The problem with government is that to be trusted, you have to be trustworthy. And the problem with the Obama administration is that, to a greater extent than any since Nixon’s, it is not. Do not be surprised if the result is that people mistrust those in authority, and order their lives accordingly. Such an outcome is bad for America, but bad governance has its consequences.
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Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He blogs at InstaPundit.com. This article was published at USA Today.