It's hard to believe, but the current tax scandal will eventually fade away just as all Washington, D.C. scandals run their course. It's easier to believe that the IRS will remain a loathsome and abusive agency, subject perhaps to some reforms and personnel changes that ultimately will do nothing to change its character.
This has been a good teachable moment for Americans about the nature of the federal Leviathan, but few people will glean the most important lesson: Both parties need a powerful tax agency to collect the funds that support the programs they, and the constituencies they represent, favor.
And boy do they favor programs. Despite the partisan rancor and the pretense of "big debates" about the size of government, the Democrats and Republicans have no interest in trimming, let alone slashing, anything of substance. Democratic leaders are particularly infuriating as they blame any tragedy on sequester "cuts," but Republicans are no more given to trimming entitlement programs – plus they still want the defense budget to grow.
Conservative think tanks even echo the tactics of liberals by complaining that modest cuts in the military budget amounts to an assault on our nation's ability to protect itself. As the Heritage Foundation opined, "President Obama's overall budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2014 and beyond is all but certain to result in the continued application of sequestration to the defense account, which will lead to defense spending levels that are too low to permit the military to protect U.S. vital national interests."
This weekend, newspaper readers will find the usual, touching commentary calling on Americans to spend some time during the three-day holiday remembering the sacrifice made by Americans who died while serving in the military. That's an honorable idea, but I'd suggest we get past the "freedom isn't free" clichés and ask a more pointed question few on the right or left want to answer: Has our continued exertion of military might made us a safer, better and freer nation?
Americans shouldn't be shocked to find that our government relies on a muscular and fearsome tax-collection agency to fund our massive welfare state. And they shouldn't be shocked that our nation, which has a defense budget higher than the combined defense budgets of the next 10 highest-spending nations, projects its military power in ways that have more to do with realpolitik than with protecting "freedom."
Even the military is dispensing with arcane talk about protecting freedom. I recently spotted billboard ads from the U.S. Navy, which proclaimed: "A Global Force for Good." I perused the Navy's Web page dedicated to the ad campaign, and there wasn't a word on it about protecting freedom. I found the lingo a little creepy: "The strength and status of any nation can be measured in part by the will and might of its navy. … As the largest, most versatile, most capable naval force on the planet today, America's Navy epitomizes this idea."
A few years ago, the Associated Press' Robert Fisk reported on the rewriting of the U.S. Army's rewriting of the "Soldier's Creed." It had long been a simple ethical statement in which soldiers vowed to protect our nation, live up to the highest ideals, and not disgrace the uniform. The Army rewrote it into a creed of the "warrior," in which America's soldiers vowed to "never accept defeat" as they destroy the nation's enemies.
I don't always agree with Fisk's politics, but he was dead-on in complaining about a subtle shift in America from honoring our military and its necessary role to a more Sparta-like embrace of militarism.
In December, my wife and I visited Central America, which brought back memories of decades-old foreign policy debates that helped mold my political worldview. We flew into Liberia, Costa Rica's modern Daniel Oduber Quiros airport – jokingly referred to as Oliver North International because it was built on the site of the military airstrip used to send aid up the Pacific coast to supply the anti-communist Nicaraguan contras.
I remember cheering the vote in 1984 that approved aid to the contras. As a young conservative, I was eager to see the United States project its military might in a way that was designed to roll back rather than simply come to terms with the freedom-sapping and expansive Soviet empire. But one of the most memorable sights as we drove through the impoverished Nicaraguan countryside last year was the huge posters of El Presidente Daniel Ortega that welcomed visitors into every city. North's Cold War nemesis remains the president of the country.
This reminded me of the insight that, ultimately, America can only be the guardian of its own freedoms. Unfortunately, we haven't been doing so well on that score in the ensuing years.
The Soviet Union's collapse was a godsend, but it's hard to argue that America has become a freer nation since the Cold War ended. The so-called peace dividend has turned into a down-payment on other wars, on maintaining the infrastructure of troops, bases and weaponry that sustains our nation's role as the world's most effective "global force for good," as the Navy's ad folks put it.
The best way to honor the sacrifices of those who perished in the nation's wars is to look at ways to limit unnecessary American military endeavors in the future. Right now, I'm guessing that will happen around the time that Congress decides to disband the IRS.