The Professionally Political IRS

The Obama Administration’s now-disintegrating excuse for the IRS’s investigation of Tea Party and other conservative groups is that it was done by career employees and not politically directed. After all, “The IRS has two political appointees: the commissioner, who serves a five-year term, and the chief counsel.”

Staying on the superficial level of comparing Obama with Nixon ignores the fundamental problem coming into sight here: the administrative state. In Woodrow Wilson’s conception, this scientific, a-political unity would inflict the will of an elite class on an electorate. In its modest way the IRS in this current scandal is playing out the logic of the great Progressive theorists of the administrative state—as well as its practitioners (see Woodrow Wilson, especially his classic essay on public administration). I have made this argument in some posts for this site, e.g., this one on Cass Sunstein and FDR, and several others, including John Marini and Joseph Postell, have made similar arguments.

If we know how the Administrative State came to be and what its purposes are, we see the depth of the crisis in self-government the IRS scandals disclose. Franklin Roosevelt centralized federal government power in the White House, with an administrative apparatus that would be the party that would end all parties. (Sidney Milkis’s study of FDR, The President and the Parties,  is particularly telling on this point.) Of course what FDR and the Progressives before him meant by ending parties or being apolitical is partisan liberal. This he made clear toward the end of his 1944 State of the Union Address:

One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis-recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called normalcy of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of fascism here at home.

FDR’s once revisionist history of Calvin Coolidge as a precursor of Hitler has been played out in various ways in the institutions that prop up the Administrative State—universities, the chattering classes, and journalism. The highly educated professionals that staff the IRS and other Washington bureaucracies don’t even need to be told who the enemy is—organizations that have “Constitution” (or “Liberty,” for that matter) in their names—because their education has told them whom and what to suspect.

The assault on bureaucracy today pits the rights of the people against the wisdom of the ruling elite. Try reforming the CIA, the civil rights division of the Justice Department, or the IRS through political appointees, who reflect the results of elections. Those agencies have long been captured, not through some iron triangle of interests, but through the acceptance of their employees of a conception of justice that is at war with constitutional government. That is what the IRS scandal is bringing to light.