David Harsanyi

So, the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups (or, more precisely, groups displaying a bit too much gusto for limited government) was far more widespread than its initial apology would have led Americans to imagine.

Yes, it is disturbing -- a dangerous abuse of power, no doubt. What's more disturbing -- or should be, at least -- is the fact that the IRS has the capacity to undermine free speech in the first place. Despite President Barack Obama's assurances, there are no safeguards that can be put into place to stop abuses of power.

The IRS doesn't just collect taxes. It also enforces speech codes. Americans assembling to gripe about Washington should not have to petition Washington for the right to do so. Yet Democrats (and Republicans such as John McCain) have, for a long time, advocated deputizing the IRS with deep and wide-ranging powers over free speech.

Some liberals have argued that it's reasonable for the IRS to pay special attention to the flood of tea party groups asking for 501(c)(4) applications (even though similarly motivated left-wing groups experienced little problems doing the same). In a 2012 editorial, in fact, The New York Times' editorial board praised the IRS for targeting tea party groups because they did not "primarily" engage in "social welfare," the designation used to merit tax exemption under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.

I suppose I would argue that any organization advocating unfettered free markets is advocating social welfare. Somehow I assume The New York Times has other ideas about the world. The real mystery is why the IRS should have any opinion on the matter at all.

Washington already knows that the 501(c) designations are a joke, as those involved rhetorically tiptoe around any exceptionally partisan phrases. But to engage in a concerted political effort doesn't pivot on the need for direct communication when, intuitively speaking, everyone knows what to do.

Example: It's not as if the Obama administration sends The New York Times' editorial board talking points, yet The New York Times' editorial board always seems to get it just right.

Why have so many on the left been defensive? Well, politics, of course. But there are other reasons. Just listen to the left treat tax-exempt status as a privilege bestowed by government. Taxes have morphed from a societal obligation into moral code. And our convoluted tax structure reflects this mindset, allowing politicians to favor trade and offer populist giveaways to solidify political power. Any simplification or flattening of that code would strip Washington of its most effective tool.

David Harsanyi

David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of "The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy." Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.