Government Power, Individual Rights, and the IRS

The IRS has jumped into the news recently as it has come to light that for 18 months, the agency decided to target political organizations based on name and ideology to delay their applications for tax exempt status.  This event provides a fascinating real life demonstration of how governmental power inherently comes at the cost of individual freedom.   As noted by the New York Times, the IRS is not an independent agency, but its function within the Treasury Department is about as untouched as it can be. This abuse of power was not the result of some large conspiracy; it occurred among simple government employees without outside help.

Which leads us to a more important truth; even government employees isolated from greater political influence can succumb to the urge to abuse their power simply because the opportunity exists.  The result here is a combination of attacks on both property and personal rights, which also illustrates something libertarians and classical liberals have argued for a long time, that property rights and and civil liberties are inseparable, and nowhere is that better demonstrated than here. By reducing the ability of individuals to do what they want with their own money and forcing them to submit to government oversight, the ability of citizens to participate in the political process was diminished.  While the result was a violation of free speech, it could only arise because property rights were curtailed in favor of government power.

And this pattern repeats itself almost everywhere, even if this was the only time we have heard about abuses recently.  Some of the most intrusive parts of the Patriot Act involve the coercion of banks to spy on their clients to check for money laundering activity.  Banks that did a bad job of identifying clients who were engaged in money laundering could have mergers and acquisitions blocked by the Treasury Department under the Patriot Act.  Again here we see a use of government power to infringe on property rights in order to take away the civil liberties of citizens without due process.  Now certainly we could hope that the Justice Department and government agencies would target only criminals, but this news story about the IRS seems to indicate that political targeting could occur without any actual politicians being involved. And of course, American history has plenty of evidence of governmental targeting on ideological grounds.  With the end of the Cold War, the targets have shifted from Communists to Arabs or Muslims, but the point remains.

Government power is dangerous. It is a tool that is often looked at to solve many problems, but it is coarse and unwieldy.  This power needs to be given grudgingly, if at all, and carefully overseen. When it has grown out of control, as it most certainly has today, we need to focus harder on reeling it back in before we look to government to take on more responsibility.