Loving the Enforcers

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My FindLaw column this week, published yesterday, discusses the recent attack on the IRS building in Austin. My major purpose in writing the column was to defend the IRS and its employees against the irresponsible and utterly false attacks from those politicians and commentators who pander to anti-IRS and anti-tax sentiment.

As I often tell my students in the basic Federal Income Taxation course, the truly surprising thing about the IRS is how well it is run. Even though it is systematically and chronically under-funded (precisely because of the political pressures that reflect -- and reinforce -- public hatred of the agency), and even though it faces the Herculean task of interacting each year with virtually every adult and business in the country, it has an enviable record of professionalism.

Consider the records of just a few other agencies (public and private). During George W. Bush’s tenure, the Department of the Interior was rocked by a scandal involving sex and drugs in exchange for favorable treatment for those whom the department was supposed to regulate. Police forces are accused of unjustified killings of civilians, and some of those accusations are found to be true upon investigation. Financial ratings agencies “work the numbers” to keep clients happy. By contrast, the IRS has many thousands more employees, with literally trillions of dollars flowing through the agency each year, yet repeated investigations into the Service’s activities turn up no systemic problems and amazingly low numbers of isolated errors.

One particular aspect of my column is worth emphasizing. I point to the 1998 hearings held in the Senate Finance Committee at the end of the second Gingrich Congress. The committee held hearings that were designed to expose the IRS as a corrupt, arrogant, abusive agency that had spun out of control. People were brought in to tell their tales of horror, with a sympathetic committee assembled to listen.

As I describe in my column, not only was the most shocking horror story later exposed as a tissue of lies -- with the person who testified to having seen the events later admitting that he had not even been present, and the other participant denying the explosive testimony that he had offered to Congress -- but the more pedestrian claims turned out not only to be tiny in number, but also largely baseless.

Writing a column like that one, of course, is one of the benefits of tenure. Being known as “the guy who loves the IRS” might lead to some hostility, but I am not in danger of being fired for my unpopular views. Politicians who know that the IRS is a convenient scapegoat, however, have no guaranteed tenure, and thus they refuse to step up and defend the Service and its employees from irresponsible accusations. This is a tragedy, not only because of the recent Austin attack on an IRS building but because day-to-day threats against IRS employees are high and rising.

None of which should be a partisan matter. In fact, if anything, the group that likes to think of itself as the "party of law and order" should be expected to be especially worked up about showing proper respect for those who are on the front lines of enforcing the law. It is thus interesting to think about when and how different people respond to the suggestion that there is a reason to resist and criticize law enforcement.

In the 1950's and 1960's, liberals frequently disparaged the police and the military. This was based on the belief that the laws were not only unjust but that the enforcers of that law were making matters worse. The civil rights movement faced institutionalized racism, racism that frequently showed itself in brutal police tactics. (The most enduring image is probably Bull Connor's men attacking African Americans in the streets of Birmingham.) The movement against the Vietnam war had two especially memorable moments of violence: the Chicago police attacks on protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention, and the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio. Some people took to calling the police "pigs," and the public at large (even those who did not call the police names) was shocked. By the time the seventies came along, the atmosphere of anger toward police was widespread enough that defenders of the police took to putting bumper stickers on their cars with slogans like: "If you don't like cops, next time you're in trouble, call a hippie!"

It would appear, then, that there is a nice parallel: Liberals (loosely speaking) grew to dislike the police and the military because of their belief that those institutions were out of control and not on the side of "the people." Conservatives (again loosely speaking) today dislike the IRS because of their belief that the Service is out of control and not on the side of "the people."

It is a nice parallel at first glance, but it breaks down almost immediately. The evidence was plentiful in the 50's and 60's that more than a few police officers and some military personnel actually had engaged in violent activities aimed at particular groups. Moreover, liberals never claimed that the police or the military were irredeemable or that their basic functions were illegitimate. Instead, institutions like citizens' review boards came into being, in an attempt to end the abuses that we had seen with far too much frequency. Those who vilify the IRS, by contrast, simply believe as a matter of faith -- beyond all objective evidence -- that tax collectors are abusive and corrupt. They do not look for reasonable approaches to improve IRS conduct but claim instead that the Service is beyond salvation. The good news, that the enforcers really are following the rules, is simply too inconvenient.

As I said in my column, no one likes to be caught doing something wrong; and the enforcers of laws will, therefore, always be met with some hostility. What separates those who hate the tax enforcers from everyone else is that the IRS bashers are not reality-based. Why does that problem seem so familiar?