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The IRS Building in Washington, D.C.
Associated Press/Photo by Susan Walsh
The IRS Building in Washington, D.C.

Tax collection as a political weapon

Politics

The IRS has “apologized” to the Tea Party and other conservative groups for “overzealous audits.” Between 2010, the year of President Barack Obama’s first midterm elections, and 2012, the year of his reelection campaign, groups with names containing words like “Tea Party” and “patriots” were singled out for strict scrutiny and intrusive questioning when they applied for non-profit, tax-exempt status. The New York Times reports, “The questionnaires demanded detailed membership lists, donors, contact information, logs of activities and other information about the groups’ intentions.”

Lois Lerner, the IRS official responsible for tax-exempt groups, denied politics had anything to do with this special treatment, saying only that, “We made some mistakes; some people didn’t use good judgment.”

Though Lerner assured us on behalf of the IRS that “we’re apologetic,” this is not an occasion for mere apologies. Any movement of the already-dreaded IRS from a strictly professional tax gathering agency to an arm of the government that punishes political opposition or politically disfavored groups, or that contains partisans who use their bureaucratic power to enforce their political opinions instead of tax law, is a movement of our country away from civility and liberty toward the brutality we see in tyrannical regimes overseas. Journalist Willy Geist said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, “This is tyranny.”

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We pay taxes because government, like virtually everything, costs money. Governments raise revenues through taxation to support their divinely ordained work (Romans 13:1, 7). But as Chief Justice John Marshall said in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Taxation can be used to discourage or even destroy particular activities or industries. A cigarette tax is supposed to turn people off from smoking. The 1944 “Cabaret Tax” killed big band music. For this reason also we don’t tax churches or religions.

But governments seize upon this taxing power as an opportunity to shape us by taxing and sparing from tax. When this happens, tax policy as social policy comes to take priority over raising revenues. But this power can go beyond nudging us in one direction or another, whether toward electric cars or away from smoking. It also can be used to intimidate or fatally burden certain forms of thought and behavior that self-styled enlightened people regard as retrograde. Commentary editor, John Podhoretz, notes, “Taking away a non-profit’s ability to receive tax-exempt charitable contributions is equivalent to a death sentence.”

The power to coerce taxes from people, to take what is theirs, is necessary, but it’s awesome and dangerous. The rule of law, which is essential to liberty among equals, requires impartial enforcement of the law on the empowered and marginal, insiders and outsiders alike. The president, who is sworn to defend our liberty and who promised to take us beyond left and right, should be stating these principles and leading the hunt for their violators.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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