A Confederacy of IRS Dunces
Religion & Liberty Online

A Confederacy of IRS Dunces

IRS-300x300A few months ago I wrote about how when I was a young Marine I learned that when the commanding officer says, “I wish” or “I desire,” these expressions have the force of a direct order and should be acted upon as if they had given a direct order. If our CO were to say, even in musing to themselves, “I wish there was something that could be done about that,” we knew we should jump into action. The main problem with this custom was when Marines would assume they knew the CO’s desires and wishes — and then act on that assumption.

A similar custom appears to be practiced at the Internal Revenue Service. A new report finds that IRS officials thought it was Obama’s unstated desire for them to crackdown on Tea Party groups:

IRS employees were “acutely” aware in 2010 that President Obama wanted to crack down on conservative organizations and were egged into targeting tea party groups by press reports mocking the emerging movement, according to an interim report being circulated Tuesday by House investigators.

The report, by staffers for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, quoted two Internal Revenue Service officials saying the tea party applications were singled out in the targeting program that has the agency under investigation because “they were likely to attract media attention.”

In the report, the investigators do not find evidence that IRS employees received orders from politicians to target the tea party, and agency officials deny overt bias or political motives.

[. . .]

In one of the key findings, investigators said negative press coverage of the tea party was one reason why the IRS gave the groups special scrutiny.

“It was my understanding that the reason they were identified is because they were likely to attract media attention,” Steven Grodnitzky, one of the employees in the exempt organizations division, told investigators.

As I wrote in May, the actions of these IRS employees appear to be explained by what I’d call a “confederacy theory”:

A theory that explains an event as being the result of an alliance between well-intentioned persons or parties who allow their biases and motives to shape their actions in such a way that the results can be evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious.

Neither President Obama nor the media needed to say directly, “I wish something could be done about those groups.” The people who were capable of taking action merely needed to know that this was the wish of the media and the President. That was enough for them to do privately what could not be said publicly.

Following an unlawful order from a superior is wrong, but the self-preservation that motivates such action is often understandable (e.g., “I need to do what my boss says to keep my job.”). But when you act in an unlawful manner because you believe you are doing what a particular group of elites would do if they were in your position, then it adds a layer of gullibility, if not outright stupidity, to the nefarious deed.

The IRS will eventually be be held responsible for targeting conservative groups. But that won’t be sufficient unless new procedures are put in place to prevent future occurrences. But what can be done? How do we check our natural, albeit sinful, impulse to use power to harm our idealogical foes? The most effective way is to increase the transparency of bureaucracies. As Lord Acton said, “Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).