Maybe it was just a coincidence that after I started to work for “North Carolina’s Conservative Voice” my income taxes were audited.
Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll never know one way or the other. That’s why still-unfolding IRS scandals are so ominous.
As I’m sure you know, the Internal Revenue Service has admitted it targeted Tea Party and other conservative nonprofit groups, and even individuals who supported conservative causes. Requests for nonprofit status were denied or dragged on for long periods for groups the IRS flagged as being in opposition to President Obama’s agenda. Conservatives were asked a bevy of intrusive and even ominous questions not asked of liberal organizations.
I started work for the Civitas Institute in February 2012. At the end of 2012, I got a letter from the IRS. It said my return from 2010 had been audited and I owed the government money.
At first I thought it odd that it took two years for any problems to surface. After a career in newspaper journalism, I don’t have such a huge pile of loot that my returns are incredibly complex.
But I replied as best I could. I spent several weekends digging through old records, poring over IRS instructions, and filling out forms. Some questions were settled, but one or two remain. I have yet to get a final answer.
Let me state right here that any problems, mistakes or confusion might be entirely my fault. I’m an editor, not an accountant or tax lawyer. Nor do I have the spare time to sort through the federal tax code, statutes and related rules, which by one count now amount to more than 72,000 pages of minutia and gobbledygook.
The massive size of the tax code highlights how oppressive it is to begin with. The real 99 percent in this country are the vast majority of average people who are at the mercy of the IRS bureaucracy and its horde of rules and red tape.
That’s why everyone is afraid of the IRS. You have to testify against yourself, a basic civil liberty otherwise protected by the Fifth Amendment. Then if you goof — if you misstate something, or misunderstand something, or can’t find the records — you could face brutal fines, or go to the slammer.
That’s intimidating. And all that is before the deliberate targeting of conservatives came to light.
Some conservative groups admitted the hassles and the anxieties led them to dial back their efforts. I feel the same way. I could have written about this weeks ago, but I held off. The IRS has terrifying power. I kept thinking that a court case called “the United States vs. Jim Tynen” was a severe mismatch.
Testimony by IRS officials during Congressional hearings was hardly reassuring. Seeing officials such as Lois Lerner, Steven Miller and Douglas Shulman lie, obfuscate and bluster was scary. Their blatant contempt for Congress and the media, and thus for Americans, made things worse. These IRS officials didn’t even bother to come up with a good lie, or a believable show of regret. They feel so secure they were bored and dismissive of the scandal.
They didn’t care about Congress or the media, or you and me. They think they are untouchable — that they can do what they want and we can’t do anything about it. What if they are right? What if the federal Leviathan is indeed too big and strong to be affected by us mere citizens?
And this applies even if you’ve done nothing wrong. Civitas policy analyst Angela Hight just got a letter from the IRS claiming she hadn’t paid her taxes. Except she had, and has the cancelled check to prove it.
But that’s the point: Even if you are 100 percent in the right, right now there is nothing to prevent the IRS from hassling you – and thus intimidating you. What are the odds that two staff members from a small nonprofit organization of a dozen employees would both be scrutinized by the IRS in the same year?
Obviously, I’m writing about it now. It’s not that I’m not still worried. But at a certain point, I realized that I can’t avoid being a target anyway. Here’s the real problem: We’re all IRS targets now. There is nothing to keep the IRS from picking on anyone it wants. And for all we know it has.
Finally, the IRS is just one federal agency. How many other Washington bureaucracies are also running roughshod over our rights and freedoms, and we just haven’t heard about it yet?
Freedom exists only where government can be trusted to obey its own laws, and limits on its power. When our trust in government dissolves, then democracy dissolves. Right now there is no reason for us to trust our government. It will take a lot of hard work and bold action to rebuild that trust, and, sadly, it isn’t clear that that will happen.
As Thomas Jefferson once wrote: When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.