A superpower and a gigantic capitalist democracy can’t work unless certain necessary and unpopular functions of government are performed objectively by professionals.
The policy machinery of the State Department can change its hue before and after elections. It can, for instance, become intensely interested in the oil sands of northern Canada and soon forget that Alberta is a Canadian province.
The professionals who manage America’s nuclear deterrent and money supply, however, must be above suspicion. Otherwise, it would be less easy to sleep at night. The IRS is also one of those institutions that must be widely trusted. Americans are free to dislike the IRS, especially at tax time. But they must believe that it’s not organized to favor the ins and harass the outs.
Trust in, if not affection for, the IRS is central to the “honor” system that efficiently and peacefully collects most of the tax revenues Washington needs to function.
Consequently, the recent allegations that IRS officials have consciously “targeted” Tea Partiers and rich Republicans deserve immediate attention. Indeed, it was appropriate and not suspicious overkill for Obama to use the word “outrageous” every time the allegations are raised.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle needn’t restrain themselves in their efforts to find out what happened and take whatever action is required to restore the credibility of an essential agency of modern government.
However, since neither American democracy nor American lives were lost, we should be able to have a little fun with the victims in this story. Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker offered up the possibilities rather quietly.
“It’s important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be 'social welfare,' not political, operations.”
It’s just possible that the political illiterates at the IRS—like first year students facing an exam question on a lecture they skipped—tripped over what these strange, angry groups were actually proposing.
The aggrieved, so-called conservative applicants for 501(c)(4) status loathed George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” were determined to stop Obamacare, and, at least in their dreams, also repeal Social Security and Food Stamps. As well, they thought that in his heart Obama was still a “social worker.” Nevertheless, they wanted the benefits that go with being designated a “social welfare” organization by the IRS. They weren’t run-of-the-mill Republicans and they didn’t want to be seen as merely ad-hoc groups of Americans mobilizing primarily to take America back from an African socialist.
Since these organizations existed to do things and, in this case, spend a lot of other people’s money, IRS anthropologists probably did ask a lot of questions—certainly far more questions than busy libertarians like to answer. Congressional investigators will determine, however, whether or not their conduct was partisan and inappropriate: whether or not this new force for social progress faced systematic harassment, or widespread, or only localized curiosity.
The wider allegation that the IRS systematically audited and intimidated outspoken Republicans needs further fleshing out. However, in that exercise, we should recall that the Obama presidency has left the rich far richer than they were the day he was sworn into office. It will also be remembered as an era of extraordinarily outspoken, extreme, and bitter partisan rivalry.