Burke, the IRS, and the Soviet Union

[This is something like the second post I’ve put up in the past six months.  I have no excuses to offer to a silent room, at least beyond observing that if I don’t work, my children don’t eat, the house goes back, and then I can’t keep this tiny patch of the Internet free to be my echo chamber.]

In the course of re-reading one of my favorite non-P. G. Wodehouse fiction books, R. F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, I ran across this quotation from Edmund Burke:  “Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long endure.”  It set me to thinking.

Burke specifically set me to thinking about the IRS scandal.  As usual, Paul L. Caron’s keeping score over at his blog.  He posts daily (literally) updates on the most recent oozing filth to be squeezed into daylight from a stone-walling bureaucracy that has long since abandoned any pretense — any at all — that the laws, let alone The Law, applies to it.  Granted, you have to be at least some fraction of a bubble out of plumb to get sufficiently into tax law as not only to teach it but to blog about it, but I’m sure Prof. Caron’s a loyal husband and loving father.  More to the point, his dogged insistence that old men forget, but the IRS shall not be forgot (w/apologies to Henry V) gives me hope that he may be one righteous man upon the finding of whom the gods of civic chaos may stay the visiting of justice upon a wicked land.

Very briefly summarized, where we are is that the senior — as in the commissioner and his chief counsel — folks at the IRS cobbled together a program to target applicants for non-profit status under § 501(c)(4) of the Revenue Code who had certain key words in their names, or who engaged in advocacy contrary to certain political positions, or who even made disseminating copies of the U.S. constitution a project (don’t you just recoil in horror from that last?).  Specifically, they were looking for nasty, ominous-sounding key phrases like “patriot” and “9/12”; they established as a selection criterion criticism of Dear Leader.  These groups were then subjected to an organized-from-on-high, highly detailed program to harass them, to make them expose the names of any who sympathised with them or actively supported them (whether or not members; I guess it’s good that Lindbergh only supported the Nazis but never actually joined up eh wot?).  Even when all the intrusive questions were fully answered (no kidding: among the questions which the federal bureaucracy felt itself entitled to ask was what were the contents of prayers said by some of these groups), and the broad-ranging scope of document demands satisfied, the IRS simply refused to rule one way or the other.  Months and in some cases years went by.  Meanwhile the leftish organizations sailed through the same process in a matter of weeks.

Well so what?  Here’s what.  Without a ruling on 501(c)(4) status from the IRS, an organization which desired such status could not raise funds, as a practical matter.  And as we all know, these days without money your voice remains unheard.  Now, curiously these initiatives within the IRS had their genesis shortly after the 2010 mid-term elections and shortly after the Citizens United ruling.  Gentle Reader will remember 2010 as the election cycle in which Dear Leader and his party in Congress got beat like a red-headed step-child.  This beat-down was to no small degree the result of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, many of them utter new-comers to the political process, coming together to express at the voting booth their disgust at things like the auto bail-outs, the porkulus stimulus bill, and crowning the edifice of legislative malfeasance, the comically misnamed Affordable Care Act.  These people and groups, nebulous, not under the control of the quisling Republican party, and most annoyingly, remarkably intelligent, coherent, and focused on the subject and origins of their outrage, had to be suppressed.  They just had to be.  But being a many-headed hydra they couldn’t be slain with a single blow to a central organization, nor could they be bought off (both of which statements have applied to the Republican congress members for generations now).  What to do?  The answer of course was obvious:  Use the administrative machinery to starve them of money and therefore air.  By cutting off their funding sources you ensure that each tiny group remains isolated, confined to a tiny core of members who can only do what they individually can afford to do from their own resources.  And of course you remind them that their resources are not safe by having your colleagues in the ATF, OSHA, and the other alphabet-soup agencies come a-visiting, each bearing a document request list.

It wasn’t just the bureaucratic intimidation treatment, either.  The IRS also leaked things like donor lists of entities whose applications were still in progress to outfits closely aligned with Dear Leader.  And it’s not like those lists were just leaked out there on some message board, either.  No, those lists were provided to specifically adverse organizations, which then went out and organized harassment of those donors.

And it worked.  In the 2012 election cycle the Tea Party groups were a pale shadow of their former selves in 2010.

During the time this was happening, of course, the IRS commissioner and his chief counsel are spending a truly astounding amount of time at the White House, meeting with Dear Leader.

I’m sure that was purely a coincidence.  Like Lois Lerner pleading her Fifth Amendment privilege when Congress hails her to testify.

And on the other side?  Well, I don’t know if you can even call it a “side,” because to be a “side” in a dispute you at least have to acknowledge that there’s a disputable issue.  The IRS shenanigans have disappeared into a black hole of non-information.  About the only mentions of it you hear are solemn, slavish repetitions by the unpaid Democrat operatives mainstream media of transparently bogus statements by Democrat congress members and their staffs that there’s no story there, that it’s a “fake scandal,” that the whole thing is made up and besides racism. 

The IRS itself has taken a number of positions, starting with “this was just a couple of rogue agents in the Cincinnati field office,” each of which has turned out not only to be inconsistent with observable patterns of behavior but to be flat-out contradicted by documents originating within the IRS itself.  The DoJ claims it is “investigating” the wrong-doing, but has not even contacted so much as a single group which was the target of these tactics.  Not a single one, nor their lawyers.

To repeat:  From those ever-vigilant watch-dogs of government we get . . . nothing beyond the credulous repetition of party talking points.

When you do hear public mention of the goings-on, it’s very frequently by someone whose sympathies with Dear Leader are either already well-known (as in the vacuous celebrity prettyfaces), or whose sympathies are otherwise made clear by circumstances.  And the tone of their remarks can only be described as crowing over all them nasty Tea Partiers just gettin’ what they deserve because racism.  After all.

Which brings to mind Burke’s observations.  There are two things which every society absolutely, positively, as in cannot-last-without-it have: (i) a secure — which is to say uncensored and private — postal system, and (ii) a politically non-active revenue-gathering mechanism.  If I cannot trust that the check I write each month for my house payment will not be plundered by either postal workers or by third parties who are allowed to get at the mails by the postal workers, then what incentive does a lender have to lend money to anyone who cannot walk in and physically hand over the money?  What incentive do I have to make my payment and not to lie and say I did and blame it on postal pilfering?  How does the financial system work?  How does the retail system work?  How do businesses do business?

If the revenue authorities view themselves as, and actively pursue the role of, political operatives advancing the cause of one faction or the other, and suppressing such as they happen to disagree with, in what material respect does that then differ from tax-farming?  Or from the ancient Russian custom of “kormlenie” — “feeding”?  Are the revenue agents not feeding their political positions from the populace?

Absolutism and corruption go hand in hand.  One feeds the other.  If you start with one you will end up with the other as well.  In an absolutist system, the ultimate value — in fact, the only value — is to work the system to one’s own advantage.  This value system (if you can call it a “system” since it consists of a single precept) necessarily produces an outlook of “whatever it takes,” and the result is as Hayek observed, even making it a chapter title: Why the Worst Get on Top.  Those who are willing to play the system, and able to do so, have a vested interest in producing and maintaining such a system, because of course in a system that is not absolutist, that is not based upon the capricious will of some Decision Maker — whether that be a divinely chosen King, or a divinely blessed clerisy, or the embodiment of that will-o’-the-wisp beloved of tyrants for the past 250 years, the “general will,” such as the SovNarKom — they must inevitably expose themselves to the frustration of their purposes by something that cannot be worked around:  The Law.  Notice also that in any system in which the Will of a decision maker is elevated to sacred status, the advantage must always go to the sociopath, who views his fellow humans as being precisely what Kant establishes they must not be: tools to the ends of another person.

Not only does “The Worst” or the sociopath flourish most under such a system, but presented with the chance he will actively seek to create such a system.  Again, that is because under any other system he will be hemmed in by something other than his own daring and his own Will to Action.  What holds this person back is only the critical mass of his fellow citizens who refuse to accept his proposition that anything goes, and who act on him (and each other, for that matter) through the device of The Law.

A recurring theme within what we may characterize as “survivor’s literature” from the Soviet Union, and specifically from the camps, is the thorough-going corruption of Everyone.  Part of that was the “you die today; I’ll die tomorrow” ethos of the camps, but you can see it right out in plain day, even before the first transit prison.  The lying, the attempts to curry favor, the stoolies, the thievery, the violence, the joyful subjugation (even unto death) of the weak by the strong:  Anyone who wants a one-scene summation of the brave new world created by Dear Leader’s idols need only read Dolgun’s description of “India.”  But more to the point:  Everyone was on the take; everyone was sharply on the look-out for what he could steal from the system, what he could steal from his fellow man, every chance he had to advance himself by doing down the guy next to him.  Nor was this wonderful world (you remember that world; it’s the one the praises of which were meretriciously sung by Walter Duranty, the fellow whose Pulitzer, won by whoring himself over the corpses of seven million famine victims, the NYT has yet to disown) even necessarily wholly new to the Soviet Union.  Read through depictions of life in Imperial Russia beyond the glitz of the court and the high nobility.  It’s depressing, almost sublimely so.  Everyone, every last damned one of them, is a crook.  They’re all looking for that one leg up that will enable them to “feed” a little more fully off the system.  The reaction, in me at least, is more one of sadness than outrage.  When every last square foot is owned — literally owned — by the tsar, when no one is free because no one is beyond a decree that Prince So-and-So, hitherto a member of the high nobility, is to be broken on the wheel, his body chopped into quarters, and his family exiled to far Siberia, what is left but to claw what advantages you can from a world that — let it be said up front — has zero moral claim on your loyalties?

I vividly recall a day in my securities regulation class in law school.  This was the mid-1990s, when the former Soviet bureaucracy and the blatnye that form an ever-present background in survivor’s literature finally merged.  This was the era of broad-daylight murders and kidnappings.  Somehow the subject of Russia came up, and how capital markets functioned in Russia, and the sheer criminality of it all.  Some American student came out with a typical pie-in-the-sky proposition of why don’t they just do it thus-and-such way.  All the way down front (and this was a large lecture room), one of the Russian LL.M. students turned around in her seat and asked, incredulously, “Do you have any idea how things in Russia actually work?”  Silence.

There is a good English expression for what is going on at the IRS and what went on — to some extent, still goes on — in Russia:  lawlessness.  In fact, the last sentence in The Gulag Archipelago is, tellingly, “There is no law.”  In survivor’s literature lawlessness is experienced not only by the utter corruption of law worked by the infamous Article 58 (guard to prisoner:  “How long is your sentence?”  prisoner:  “Five years.”  guard:  “What did you do?”  prisoner: “Nothing at all.”  guard:  “You lie!  The punishment for nothing at all is ten years!”) but also by the “socially friendly elements” of the blatnye.  They ruled the roost in camp until nearly the end.  What changed?  The Ukrainians decided they’d had enough of it.  They very simply decided they were going to kill all the stoolies and all the thieves.  And so they did.  Within a very brief time the camp authorities realized that their precious thieves were about to be exterminated, and moved them to completely different camps.  No more did the camp guards have the thieves to help them out, to install in the trusty positions.  Now you had entire camps full of nothing but Article 58s.

And yet, even after the camps were long shuttered, the rot remained.  And in the end the Soviet Union fell apart.  It simply fell apart.  For the only time I’m aware of, a sovereign nation, not at war and without a single hostile boot on its soil — in fact, at the head of a servile alliance system — and sitting on top of untold natural wealth in the form of generations’ reserves of fossil fuels and just about every useful mineral known to modern man, pulled the shutters closed and went out of business.  Because it couldn’t go on.  Because it had finally rotted out from within.  Will anyone argue that liberty prevails in Russia now? 

 What is going on within the IRS, and the DoJ, and the other federal agencies, is the take-over of the American polity by the blatnye, only so far without the knives across the throats.  We have an entire half of the political spectrum cheering them on, promising them soft landings at “non-profits” and “educational” establishments when, like Lois Lerner, they finally get so backed into a corner that they’re no longer useful to Dear Leader in their agency jobs.  What happens when, like Phaemon’s dog, all members of the apparatchiki, of all political stripes (can anyone out there guarantee me that there will never be a neo-Nazi IRS agent, or a Maoist lawyer on the DoJ staff, or some dude at OSHA who thinks that Pol Pot really had it right?) decide that this is Just How It’s Done Nowadays?

One of the tragedies of human existence is that it is so much easier to destroy, to undermine, to do evil, than it is to build and grow constructively.  It took the citizens of Cologne roughly 600 years to build their cathedral.  A couple of plane loads of errant bombs from Bomber Command or the 8th Army Air Force could have reduced it to rubble in a matter of minutes.  It took England from the reign of Henry VIII, when he could simply tell Parliament that he wanted Lord So-and-So attainted and executed, until 1714 (don’t quote me on that date; I’ve slept since I last looked it up), when for the last time a British monarch withheld the royal assent.  Not quite 200 years.  It took them several generations to move from the world of Lord Holland, who made himself one of the richest men in the kingdom by siphoning from his job as paymaster of the army, to the world of the 1830s, when visitors to official offices were adjured to “pray speak only of business.”

Where is the United States on that trajectory?  When FDR wanted to persecute Andrew Mellon, he instructed the IRS general counsel, Robert Jackson (whom FDR later rewarded for his whoring himself in that fashion with a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court), to get after him.  Which Jackson went ahead and did, bringing criminal charges against Mellon for having claimed deductions on his personal income tax returns . . . that the code said he was entitled to claim.  But at least Jackson proceeded in the open, and however farcically through the mechanisms of the law.  We are now at a point that law is neither more nor less than irrelevant to how the IRS treats any particular person or organization, and the processes it uses to treat them that way.

We are straying ever closer to the point of being “generally corrupt.”  “Corrupt” is an epithet long hurled about in American politics.  In 1824 Henry Clay sold his support in the House to John Quincy Adams, and was rewarded with the job of Secretary of State, up until that point a stepping stone to the presidency itself.  From that moment forward, Jackson’s slogan became “Corrupt Bargain,” and Adams collapsed in 1828.  Nowadays we would see nothing objectionable about Clay’s acting as he did (come to think of it, there has never been another Secretary of State make it to the Oval Office since then, has there?).  Let’s get that straight:  We see nothing wrong with selling one’s vote for president in exchange for a specific political office.  This is despite the fact that most states out there have laws imposing criminal sanctions on promising office in exchange for vote.  Oh.  I’m sure that never happens.  A sizable portion of our popluation now accepts it as unremarkable that the IRS and other federal agencies will make decisions which are — in economic terms at least . . . for the time being — life-and-death to their subjects based upon partisan political considerations.  And we whoop and holler in support, when it’s one of our side doling it out to the Other Guys.

Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long endure.