Let's Get the IRS Out of the Speech Business

Why does it have the capacity to undermine free speech in the first place?


So, the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups (or, more precisely, groups displaying a bit too much gusto for limited government) was far more widespread than its initial apology would have led Americans to imagine.

Yes, it is disturbing—a dangerous abuse of power, no doubt. What's more disturbing—or should be, at least—is the fact that the IRS has the capacity to undermine free speech in the first place. Despite President Barack Obama's assurances, there are no safeguards that can be put into place to stop abuses of power.

The IRS doesn't just collect taxes. It also enforces speech codes. Americans assembling to gripe about Washington should not have to petition Washington for the right to do so. Yet Democrats (and Republicans such as John McCain) have, for a long time, advocated deputizing the IRS with deep and wide-ranging powers over free speech.

Some liberals have argued that it's reasonable for the IRS to pay special attention to the flood of tea party groups asking for 501(c)(4) applications (even though similarly motivated left-wing groups experienced little problems doing the same). In a 2012 editorial, in fact, The New York Times' editorial board praised the IRS for targeting tea party groups because they did not "primarily" engage in "social welfare," the designation used to merit tax exemption under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.

I suppose I would argue that any organization advocating unfettered free markets is advocating social welfare. Somehow I assume The New York Times has other ideas about the world. The real mystery is why the IRS should have any opinion on the matter at all.

Washington already knows that the 501(c) designations are a joke, as those involved rhetorically tiptoe around any exceptionally partisan phrases. But to engage in a concerted political effort doesn't pivot on the need for direct communication when, intuitively speaking, everyone knows what to do.

Example: It's not as if the Obama administration sends The New York Times' editorial board talking points, yet The New York Times' editorial board always seems to get it just right.

Why have so many on the left been defensive? Well, politics, of course. But there are other reasons. Just listen to the left treat tax-exempt status as a privilege bestowed by government. Taxes have morphed from a societal obligation into moral code. And our convoluted tax structure reflects this mindset, allowing politicians to favor trade and offer populist giveaways to solidify political power. Any simplification or flattening of that code would strip Washington of its most effective tool.

Any attack on the credibility of the IRS matters because soon enough, it will be forcing us to buy things, as well as regulating speech. Obamacare's unprecedented expansion tasks the IRS as dispenser of the "penalty" coercing Americans to partake in a collective health insurance scheme—and discerning the intent of more than 40 new taxes, to boot. This will be handled by the same fine organization that was recently hit with a class action suit alleging it improperly accessed and stole the health records of some 10 million Americans—some 60 million medical records, including psychological counseling, gynecological counseling, sexual/drug treatment and other medical treatment data.

Yes, reasonable people understand that government isn't systematically trying to find out what they had for breakfast or what they watch on TV. That would be as paranoid as believing that the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers have the power to control millions of voters. But rational people understand that abuse happens. If you're worried about the government's invading your privacy, there is no agency with more means to do it than the IRS.

So though this is a fine time to push the politics of scandal—because occasionally, politics is substantive—it would be more constructive for the GOP to push for tax and IRS reform.