Everyone's a crook

When filing your return is too complex, law-breaking is assured

Issue: "Down Syndrome = Death Sentence?," Jan. 18, 1997

If you knew that just a couple of minor slipups in the filing of your tax returns over the next three months might both cost you your job and land you in federal prison, you'd probably give the task a few more hours of attention than those you've already grudgingly allotted.

Modestly assuming that 100 million typical taxpayers devote just 10 hours each to completing this year's federal returns, that's the equivalent of having the U.S. government assign 500,000 people full time for the next year to the filing of tax forms. What an incredible waste of human energy! But even that won't be enough. Millions of these taxpayers will give up and go get professional help, at significant personal cost. And even then, IRS will employ tens of thousands more people to check the accuracy of what gets filed and to chase down those who make mistakes, innocent and otherwise. Consider what it would mean for society to have all that vigor focused on something truly worthwhile!

The real tragedy, though, has less to do with the stupid misuse of human potentiality than it does with making petty lawbreakers and crooks out of us all. Far too many people, en route to doing something good and profitable for society, find themselves running afoul of laws so intricate nobody is smart enough to obey them. Indeed, in tests of IRS personnel in recent years, five different IRS &quotexperts" have come up with five different answers when given a standard return of moderate difficulty to complete. Whether you interpret that as suggesting there's only one right answer and four wrong ones, or generously concede that there might be five right answers, the whole lamentable process begs the questions of fairness and justice. If no one anywhere really knows what a properly completed form looks like, we've made a joke of the whole system--and taught our citizens to think of government itself also as a joke. But for those whose integrity gets challenged because the standard has become so warped, the joke isn't quite so funny.

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Ask Newt Gingrich. none of the whole flap over the House Speaker's supposed ethical lapses--even his confessed offenses--would likely have occurred were the federal government capable of defining clearly what tax-exempt activity is all about. But after more than 50 years' experience in telling some organizations that they're exempt and others that they're not, the government still doesn't have a legally clear definition of what constitutes tax-exempt status.

The likelihood is that if someone really wanted to make a pest of himself, he could make your church, or your children's school or college (public or private), or your scouting group, or your favorite missions organization or relief agency, look just as wicked as Newt Gingrich's political enemies have made him look. For every one of those organizations has almost certainly done something in the past to make itself vulnerable to charges that it violated the spirit of someone's interpretation of what it means to be tax exempt.

There's irony here. Of the more than 70 specific ethics charges originally leveled against Mr. Gingrich, only two even reached the point of formal discussion. The others were dismissed out of hand. But the two that have caused all the ruckus and proven so politically and legally costly to the Speaker have involved the ambiguity of the tax code. The man who's made it his campaign to reduce the bloated federal government ran up against a tax code whose sheer size leaves it unintelligible.

It's possible, you know, to write important laws in a simple and relatively brief fashion. Take the Ten Commandments, for example. Even if you add to them all the case law and examples in the rest of the Pentateuch, and then throw in as footnotes everything Jesus said about the law, you could easily fit it all in the booklet IRS sent you a few days ago.

We should hardly be surprised that a government that is so much wordier than God is also greedier. God teaches us to remember him with 10 percent of our income; government regularly asks for two and three times that amount. If Uncle Sam weren't so insatiable and overweening in the first place, the motivation to gain tax exemption wouldn't even exist.

The main problem isn't with a House Speaker trying to bend federal tax rules to his ideological advantage. The main problem is a government so big in the first place that it thinks it has the right to define when people can talk about government and when they can't. Charles Krauthammer was correct in pointing out last week that &quotIf advancing a political agenda while teaching history is now a hanging offense, there are not enough lampposts to handle the volume of professors who must swing." But it's not enough just to say that everyone else is guilty of the same crime that Mr. Gingrich confessed to. We've got to insist it's not a crime for anyone--even in a tax-exempt setting--to speak about political ideology.

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