IRS Scandal: Beinart Stands up for Poor, Helpless Bureaucrats

IRS Scandal: Beinart Stands up for Poor, Helpless Bureaucrats

Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast often takes positions that are merely liberal, but his stance on the IRS scandal is laughable. Sticking to the government’s debunked narrative that a lowly, understaffed Cincinnati office was to blame, Beinart argues that the lesson of the IRS scandal is that the agency needs more power, staffing and funding. The IRS scandal, he writes, was just a “mess”–one “born less of overregulation than underregulation.”

Employing radical clichés like “robber barons” to describe the Koch brothers, Beinart offers what has become the standard Democratic line: that the IRS was pursuing the noble goal of regulating new organizations made possible by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. Like the elected stooges who have made that claim, Beinart cannot explain why conservative 501(c)4 groups were primary targets–and small groups in particular.

But Beinart goes further, complaining that the narrative the story reinforces–that of a domineering federal government–is false. Instead, he says, the federal government is too weak to enforce the law against the new private beneficiaries of a “second gilded age.” The problem is that the IRS is “already too weak to make the rich pay their taxes or respect the rules of democratic fair play,” he writes, worrying about its ability to implement Obamacare.

Yet if Beinart is correct that the IRS is too weak to administer the tax code, it is not because of a lack of money or funding. It is because the tax code is so large and unwieldy as to be unenforceable. Beinart laments that the IRS office in Cincinnati had few experts in tax law. But if they had all been tax law professors, it would not have helped–first because the problem was ethical, not legal; and second because no one fully grasps tax law.

At Harvard Law School, I happened to study with one of the nation’s foremost tax lawyers–a fair-minded Democrat who also happened to have been Barack Obama’s professor. Our text (above) was an abridged version of the federal tax code. It was the size of an old telephone book. Frequently, lectures would end with laughter as the professor highlighted contradictory, convoluted and ever-evolving regulations that even he could not quite explain.

If the IRS is unequal to the task of enforcing the laws and regulations, that is largely because there are too many of them. The same problem persists in other areas of government, too–such as immigration, where conflicting rules mean that current law is merely a “concept,” in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), not something that is actually enforced. The conservative case is not just that government is too big, but too complicated.

With the increasing size and complexity of government come new opportunities for special interests to write and exploit loopholes. The real “robber barrons” of this age are not the rare self-made entrepreneurs but the growing ranks of crony capitalists who employ mercenary lobbyists to win legislative concessions, large earmarks, and–most notoriously–waivers from the most obnoxious portions of laws that the rest of us must follow.

They are able to do so partly because of a left-leaning press corps that is eager to cloak the darker motives of big government in the finery of good intentions. Regardless of the fact that senior officials have already lied to Congress and the public, Beinart persists in claiming there is nothing to investigate but a bureaucratic “mess.” Even if that were true, it is a mess that expanding the size, cost and power of the IRS can only make worse.