The Corner

Politics & Policy

No, You Don’t Have to Be a Criminal to Want to Limit Government

(artstreet/Getty Images)

At the Bulwark, Jim Swift writes:

As the Wall Street Journal has reported, one idea that the White House and congressional Democrats have proposed for closing the tax gap involves giving the IRS the ability to get more data about bank accounts with a value over $600—specifically to see the amounts of money flowing in and out.

After dismissing a cherry-picked set of criticisms — and ignoring that, thus far at least, even Democrats in the House have rejected this proposal — Swift concludes that:

What the Democrats want to do is give the IRS more knowledge about where and how money flows. As the IRS commissioner wrote last month, more and better data “will provide the IRS with a lens into otherwise opaque sources of income with historically lower levels of reporting accuracy.” In opposing this measure, Republicans claim they are standing up for privacy and for people who don’t yet have bank accounts but hypothetically might someday—but they are really covering for tax cheats.

Ah, yes. That old chestnut! Favor restrictions on government power? You’re not just wrong; you must be a wannabe criminal.

Swift’s view has a long pedigree in unthinking and reactionary circles, being of a piece with the notion that if you expect the Fourth Amendment to be rigorously enforced you have “something to hide,” or that if you plead the Fifth in a courtroom you “must be guilty,” or that if you hope to uphold the First Amendment so that you can speak as freely as you wish, you’re probably just “a bigot.” There is, in fact, no area to which it cannot be stupidly applied.

It is true, of course, that limiting government power sometimes helps bad actors. But it is rarely true that helping bad actors is the aim of those who wish to limit government. Supporters of the exclusionary rule are not motivated by a desire to help the guilty, but to raise the cost of government malfeasance. Advocates of robust mens rea requirements are not motivated by a desire to make prosecutors’ jobs more difficult, but by a desire to limit punishment to those who knew they were breaking the rules. Proponents of unanimous juries are not seeking to let malefactors go free, but to ensure that the harshest sanctions our society imposes are levied only when it is sure. The ACLU did not defend the marchers at Skokie because it hoped to hear more from neo-Nazis; the ACLU defended the marchers at Skokie because it did not want the government to have the power to silence anyone.

There is nothing at all unusual or pernicious about the pro-privacy stance that has upset Swift. Right or wrong, it is about as American as stances get. The IRS has an enormous amount of power, and, especially given some of its recent behavior, it is entirely natural for Americans to oppose expanding that power so that it is permitted to monitor every bank account in the country. That Jim Swift’s first reaction upon hearing that there was opposition to this absurd proposal was to call its opponents “tax cheats” speaks volumes about him — as well as about what, at this point, might only charitably be described as his political worldview.

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