Regardless of where the investigation into the IRS’s enormous abuse of power leads, the scandal is already a headache for the Obama administration–and the Democratic Party in general–for the simple reason that it highlights the irresponsibility of the left’s project of ever-expanding and unaccountable big government. The fact that the IRS has been engaged in a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and suppression of conservative non-profits during the Obama presidency has rightly been the focus of reporting on the scandal. But there is an important detail that should not be overlooked.
We now know that the IRS campaign targeted not just explicitly “Tea Party” or other patriotic-sounding organizations, but “ones worried about government spending” and those who “criticize[d] how the country is being run,” as the Wall Street Journal reported. In other words, the IRS targeted anyone who disagreed with the president. Yet as outrageous as this is, there is an element of inevitability to it. The IRS is empowered to silence groups that IRS officials believe may oppose the IRS’s powers–which the IRS is abusing at will for its own financial and political benefit. So they simply used the powers they were given, and which are expanding under ObamaCare, to protect themselves and the administration from their common foes.
Conservatives and liberals have been engaged in a debate over the size and scope of government to a greater degree in the Obama era in part because the president takes a radically different approach to the issue than his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat. (It was the Democrat Bill Clinton, after all, who declared the era of big government to be over.) Conservatives have long argued that restraining big government is a worthy goal in itself. But in the era of Obama, Democrats have been arguing just the opposite nonstop.
That’s why liberals scoffed at the recent Medicaid study showing, once again, that a central and expensive element of ObamaCare doesn’t work. But as was clear from Paul Krugman’s response, with few exceptions Democrats don’t see ObamaCare as a means to improving health; they see it as a massive expansion of government empowered to transfer wealth and play favorites. Expanding government’s power and reach–if possible, without a related increase in transparency or accountability–is the central ideological component of the modern Democratic Party’s worldview.
When Republicans warned of “death panels,” the overheated rhetoric was describing an entirely realistic scenario: ObamaCare putting unaccountable bureaucrats between patients and their doctors. And the line of attack resonated because the Democrats’ plans were so baldly undemocratic and invasive. As the Washington Post reported in February, a new Pew poll showed that “for the first time in at least the last two decades, a majority of Americans say Washington actually poses a threat to their ‘personal rights and freedoms.’”
The rise in bureaucracy alarmed Robert Nisbet, who wrote nearly 40 years ago:
Few things so clearly separate the liberalism of the nineteenth century from twentieth-century liberalism and progressivism as the nearly complete acceptance by the latter of bureaucracy. It is one of the tragedies of our age that the pluralism to be seen in so much of the social thought of the late nineteenth century and the concomitant inclination toward the local and the voluntary have virtually disappeared in our time, commonly referred to, if referred to at all, as archaisms and atavisms….
This is, of course, precisely the situation that Weber had in mind when he wrote early in the century about the conflict between bureaucracy and democracy, with the latter tending toward ever greater excesses of demagoguery. The paradox presented is tragic indeed. Through democracy, historically, bureaucracy has constantly expanded, the result of the rising number of social and economic functions taken on by the democratic state. But when bureaucracy reaches a certain degree of mass and power, it becomes almost automatically resistant to any will, including the elected will of the people, that is not of its own making….
Poll after poll among all elements of the population will reveal widespread hostility, but for the bureaucracy such evidence bespeaks only ignorance and the need of still greater bureaucracy for the purpose of liberating the people from their prejudices.
Nisbet closes that particular train of though on a quite pessimistic note:
More and more, I suspect, revolt in the West in whatever form it takes–peaceful and political, violent and terroristic, or military–will consist of hatred of bureaucracy and passionate desire to destroy it. It is the immensity of bureaucracy at the present time, and the growing immensity of opposition to it, that promises a drive toward total reconstruction that must itself be laden with implications of despotism.
Put simply, growing and unaccountable bureaucracy pits the government against the people. That is what we are seeing on a chilling scale with the IRS scandal. That is why Americans have remained so opposed to ObamaCare and other elevations of the bureaucracy over the public will–at the public’s personal expense, it should be noted, and for which the IRS comes collecting each year to fund its further insulation from the democratic process.
And that is why Americans expect the administration to take this scandal as seriously as they do and take action that would sufficiently curtail the taxman’s ability to run interference for the president and suppress his political opponents. Significant steps to rein in the IRS have to be taken–that much we know. The only question remaining is whether Democrats will move to clean up IRS corruption or continue profiting from it.