The IRS and Lord Acton

Posted: May 14, 2013 12:01 AM
The IRS and Lord Acton

"Trust us" is the mantra of Big Government.

Trust us, why? Because -- the words hardly need speaking these days -- "We know what you need; we know what you want; we know how to deliver. You don't need to know our names, our faces. All you need to know is that we care."

Big Government cares so deeply that it wishes to protect Americans from exhortations by suspicious groups made of suspicious people who are critical of our national direction. Maybe such groups will earn tax-exempt status, and maybe -- heh-heh -- they won't.

You never know how an IRS investigation will turn out: one more reason for wrath and alarm at the news that everyone's favorite federal agency has been scrutinizing groups faulting Big Government and its tendencies toward regulation and excessive spending. This suspect category includes one group whose apparently subversive aim is to "make America a better place to live."

A "better place"? Wait. Doesn't the federal government have some ideas of its own as to the ways and means of making America better? Can Washington, D. C. let just any old band of middle class malcontents receive tax exemption for chiming in with possibly contrasting notions?

The tempest over IRS' policy of singling out tea party groups and the like for special scrutiny has political implications. How could Republicans and conservatives be expected not to clobber the Obama administration for inspiring, supposedly, a campaign to mute or silence critics?

The whole episode opens up, nevertheless, the question of how much power a free country can ever accord government without ceasing at some point to be free in any meaningful sense. In other words, this whole thing is bigger than a single president or government agency, no matter how powerful.

On especially solemn occasions when government has overstepped in particular degree the limitations that ought to bind government, I abuse my tedious habit of quoting Lord Acton, the Victorian historian who wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." No eight words sum up better the perils attendant on surrender of rights and functions to government honchos and holy men.

A far worse habit than that of quoting Acton is the habit of looking the opposite direction when government acquires some new authority over daily life. A fair amount of authority, sometimes a lot of it -- think of the military -- government can't dispense with. It could not otherwise provide basic protections. The work of reshaping society is at the other extreme of government endeavor. As government grows, its agents multiply; as they multiply, so necessarily they work out behind closed doors, out of sight: contriving, planning, executing, issuing rules, writing regulations, telling us who gets a tax exemption and who doesn't.

I intend no offense here to public servants who see their task as service, those who function more as technicians than as makers of policy. They differ from ideologues -- the Obama administration is stuffed with them, from the White House to the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Labor Relations Board -- committed to policy agendas of one kind or another. The superstructure of Big Government tends to hide them until, on account of investigation or accident, out comes word as to what they are doing.

You say the IRS has been leaning on conservative, as opposed to liberal, organizations seeking tax exemption? And that NLRB tried to punish Boeing for moving an aircraft assembly plant to South Carolina, a right to work state? Why, just imagine!

Or, instead, try imagining the temptations that confront Big Government every day, the crackling impulses to use power, if not "absolute power," to achieve ideological objectives. Acton knew human nature; he understood that the brokers and manipulators of power, trying to "do good" for favored ones will end up working mischief upon the lives and liberties of the disfavored.

We can "trust" Big Government all right. We can trust it to make a mess every time -- and that's more often now than ever before -- that it goes screechingly out of control.

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