WASHINGTON — Suppose that the Environmental Protection Agency were to admit offhandedly that the fluoridation of water had only modest communist mind-control effects. Or the United Nations were to concede it has been running fleets of black helicopters over American cities, but only in the course of conducting extensive good will tours.
The IRS has managed a similar confirmation. For years, tea party and patriot groups have breathlessly alleged that federal bureaucrats were conspiring against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Then federal bureaucrats conspired to target conservative groups because their tax documents contained the words "tea party" or "patriot," and because they were "educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights."
As the scandal has unfolded, the IRS has shown characteristic forthrightness and transparency. In March 2012, the then-commissioner of the IRS, Doug Shulman, assured a congressional committee: "There's absolutely no targeting." But senior officials at the agency, according to a leaked IRS inspector general report, were briefed about the targeting as early as the summer of 2011. Now the agency has backtracked to this position: "IRS senior leadership was not aware of this level of specific details at the time of the March 2012 hearing." It will probably take many further congressional hearings to explore the considerable gap between "absolutely no targeting" and "not aware of this level of specific details."
The IRS has found few defenders, mainly because it is the IRS. Can you imagine the reception that similar arguments would receive if made to the IRS during an audit? "I was not aware of this level of specific details when I claimed that I absolutely deserved a massive tax deduction." The IRS is granted the level of sympathy that it would display to others.
What is most maddening about the IRS response is its complacency. Lois Lerner, in charge of nonprofit vetting at the IRS, has termed the heightened scrutiny of conservative groups "insensitive." When asked why her apology was made during an obscure conference, she responded, "I don't believe anyone ever asked me that question before." This after years of complaints by conservative groups of harassing and improper requests for information, including details of their postings on social networking sites and material on the political ambitions of board members and their families.
The practices already admitted by the IRS were not political insensitivity; they were political corruption. They amounted to an intrusive, ideologically targeted federal investigation of an American political movement. And complacency, in this circumstance, is self-indictment. As Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, put it: "If it had been just a small group of employees, then you would think that the high level IRS supervisors would have rushed to make this public, fired the employees involved, and apologized to the American people and informed Congress. None of that happened in a timely way." And perhaps not coincidentally, even the IRS' onset of mild remorse came well after the 2012 election.
I am conspicuously not a libertarian. I believe that government has valid purposes that are more than minimal, and that public service is essentially noble. But most Americans, myself included, become libertarians when a policeman is rude and swaggering during a traffic stop. Give me that badge number. It is precisely because police powers are essential to the public good that abusing them is so offensive. The same holds for overzealous or corrupt TSA agents. And it is doubly true with IRS personnel who misuse their broad and intimidating powers. It is enough to bring out the Samuel Adams in anyone.
The temptation to abuse power has deep psychological roots. During the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, some students were randomly assigned as guards in a mock prison, while others were designated as inmates. The exercise had to be stopped after six days because the guards became aggressive and abusive. There are serious risks at the intersection of minimal preparation and disproportionate power.
Earlier this month, during his commencement address at Ohio State University, President Barack Obama said: "Unfortunately, you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity. ... They'll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices."
Now, part of his own administration has powerfully amplified those voices. If he expects Americans to reject them, it is his personal responsibility to act decisively in restoring the ruined reputation of the IRS.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.