Politics & Policy

The IRS’s Curious Immunity

It’s worse than the PATRIOT Act.

Cast your minds back to the great PATRIOT Act freakout of 2001, during which Americans were reminded hourly that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” and Benjamin Franklin’s famous line about liberty and safety seemed to have been emblazoned onto every last protest sign.

Back then, government overreach was distinctly uncouth. “If the events of September 11, 2001, have proven anything,” comedian Jon Stewart lamented, “it’s that the terrorists can attack us, but they can’t take away what makes us American — our freedom, our liberty, our civil rights.” He paused: “Only Attorney General John Ashcroft can do that.”

Ashcroft and the PATRIOT Act were widely disparaged by critics who warned of an imminent descent into tyranny. But one detail in particular was singled out for discussion: “Library patrons in Santa Cruz are seeing a new type of sign these days: a warning that records of the books they borrow may wind up in the hands of federal agents,” warned the San Francisco Chronicle. Why? Because, as Salon’s Christopher Dreher noted, “the USA PATRIOT Act gives the government broad new powers to seize library and bookstore records — and prevents librarians and booksellers from complaining.”

When interest in this provision exploded, the American Library Association put out a statement: “The American Library Association believes that freedom of expression is an inalienable human right, necessary to self-government, vital to the resistance of oppression, and crucial to the cause of justice, and further, that the principles of freedom of expression should be applied by libraries and librarians throughout the world.”

#ad#The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) joined in, complaining that the Act was “an open door for government to browse into our records.” Leaping into action, the ACLU ran an entire fundraising drive on this issue, adding that now “your medical records, records and lists of individuals who belong to political organizations are also fair game for the government to seize.” And, when the FBI first used the PATRIOT Act in 2005 to get information from a library, the New York Times covered the story in detail.

Opposing the Act in Congress, Senator Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) contended that the measure would keep “records of what books someone has taken out of the library.” After it passed overwhelmingly, Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, sought to repeal the provision. This was the first change to the Act to be proposed in the Senate. And one Senator Barack Obama, contributing to the reauthorization debate in 2006, characterized the law as having “powers it didn’t need to invade our privacy without cause or suspicion.”

None of this is to say that these groups were wrong. America was swept up in reaction after a despicable act of terror and, in such times, dissenting voices are imperative. As with all government, the Department of Homeland Security posits a potential threat to liberty and its implications must be discussed. Moreover, the PATRIOT Act is problematic and many conservatives are unfortunately blind to some of those problems. But it is peculiar how selectively government departments are called on their potency. Where are the reformers and the dissidents now that the IRS has been caught playing games with its considerable power? Is it still beyond the pale to suggest that the problem lies at the very root of the income tax itself?

Discussing the work of the IRS, Politico reports:

The Internal Revenue Service asked tea party groups to see donor rolls.

It asked for printouts of Facebook posts.

What else? Oh, yes:

And it asked what books people were reading.

#page#

As a matter of fundamental principle, I fail to understand why people putatively concerned with privacy are so comfortable with having to report to the government the details of everything they earn — and to explain how they earned it, from whom, where, and when — but so terrified at the prospect of the state’s discovering that they’ve been reading Dan Brown.

Certainly, the requirement that certain “social welfare” groups justify their eligibility if they intend to take advantage of exemptions from the tax code is a reasonable one. Moreover, to have an income tax is inevitably to have an IRS. But, given this, what explains the comfort with the income tax in the first place? Why is the IRS less worrying to the Left than is the DHS? Especially in light of this abuse, why is the ACLU not calling for the creation of a tax system that does not require individuals casually to share so much private information with the state? If national-security concerns, as Feingold insisted, cannot trump privacy, then why can the state’s economic convenience?

#ad#Both the IRS and the DHS may ask pretty much whatever they please, and both may conduct capricious and invasive investigations without too much in the way of probable cause or oversight. But if anything, the IRS is considerably the more intrusive of the two — and it is set to become even more so as Obamacare wraps its ugly tentacles around us all. As a matter of course, I am required annually to hand over a great deal of my personal information to the state, not because I have done anything wrong but as a condition of my existing and earning a living. Contrarily, I will likely come into the DHS’s purview only if I do something wrong, if they target the wrong person, or if the security services cast too wide a net. When they next expire in 2015, the more worrying components of the PATRIOT Act should certainly be revisited and expunged. But, while they should not be on the statute books, it remains true that these components have almost never been used. The IRS, meanwhile, abuses its power daily. Where is the conniption?

It’s not just books. USA Today reports that the IRS asked the tea-party groups for the “names of donors,” for “a list of all issues that are important to the organization” (along with the organization’s “position regarding such issues”), for records of conversations members had, and for information as to whether members had any intention of running for public office. As my colleague Andrew Stiles recorded yesterday, the IRS even went so far as to instruct a teacher within a conservative educational group to “to identify the students I’m teaching and what I’m teaching them.”

Vigilance, we are told, is the eternal price of liberty. Without doubt, our overzealous security regime deserves our attention. Still, while we’re at it, we might stop ignoring the monster in our midst.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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