The IRS: Destroying Liberty Since before You Were Born

In the fallout from the recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service systematically persecuting conservative political groups and other enemies of President Obama, the establishment is putting on a good show of being shocked by the behavior.  The reality is that the IRS is and always has been a tool of oppression and is routinely used by those in power to destroy their opponents.

Once the income tax expanded to include nearly every wage-earner and company in the country, it was immediately seized upon as a potent weapon by the worst tyrants in American history.  Franklin Roosevelt loved the IRS and used it well to silence his opponents.  When he wasn't illegally wiretapping members of Congress or other enemies, he was dispatching revenue agents to trump up charges against anyone who dared to oppose him.  Roosevelt's own son, Elliot, said of his father, "[He] may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution."  Roosevelt sent his minions to destroy Senator Huey Long, radio commentator Boake Carter, Congressman Hamilton Fish, Former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Moses Annenberg, and dozens of others.  FDR also intervened to derail IRS investigations into corrupt Jersey City Democrat Frank Hague and then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson.

Mississippi newspaper publisher Hodding Carter was audited repeatedly during the 1950s when he made the unpopular decision to support the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings.  Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King and several lawyers at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were audited in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

John Kennedy and his little brother Bobby found the IRS valuable for intimidation, launching a massive tax probe of steel company executives who refused to set their prices at levels acceptable to Jack and Bobby.  As Robert Kennedy himself later said, "[w]e looked over all of them as individuals ... we were going for broke ... their expense accounts and where they'd been and what they were doing[.] ... I picked up all their records[.] ... All of them were subpoenaed for their personal records." 

In the mid-1960s, Missouri Senator Edward Long held hearings on the widespread corruption within the IRS.  In retaliation, the IRS leaked information to an editor at Life magazine about Long's ties to infamous union boss Jimmy Hoffa.  The result was Long's defeat in the 1968 Democratic primary.  The editor at Life, William Lambert, said that after Senator Long was defeated, he received a personal phone call from IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen offering congratulations.

President Richard Nixon knew the awesome power of the IRS to instill fear and silence opposition.  As Nixon once said about his choice to head the agency, "I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a b****, that he will do what he's told, that every income-tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not our friends.  Now, it's as simple as that.  If he isn't, he doesn't get the job."

In 1996, Senator William Roth initiated the first comprehensive investigation and oversight hearings in 70 years on the tactics of the Internal Revenue Service.  In his 1999 book1 detailing what the Senate Finance Committee discovered, he lays out a shocking tale of arrogance, corruption, mismanagement, malfeasance, harassment, and criminal activity.  Senator Roth describes law-abiding citizens, hounded for years by rouge IRS agents, ultimately being driven to suicide, and their relatives continuing to be harassed and publicly embarrassed long after burying their loved ones.

Not only does the virtually limitless power of the IRS make it an irresistible weapon for authoritarian presidents, but its boundless authority to snoop, harass, and destroy lives inevitably corrupts its personnel.  It is a universally recognized maxim that power corrupts -- and the IRS has more of it than any other entity in our country.  The agency employ three times as many personnel as the FBI and has detailed files on every taxpayer in the nation -- including your Social Security number and those of your children, every place you work, how much you make, what you invest in, with whom you do business, the cost of your mortgage, and your financial account numbers.  And the IRS answers to no one.

The arrogance of power was on full display as far back as 1925, when Senator James Couzens of Michigan was trying to conduct an investigation2 into corruption within the Bureau of Internal Revenue (As the IRS was previously known).  During one hearing, Senator Couzens was called away from the committee proceedings by none other than Internal Revenue Commissioner David Blair, who brazenly served him with charges that he owed $11 million in back taxes.  After a costly and protracted legal fight, it was eventually determined that Senator Couzens was in fact owed a million-dollar refund.

That arrogance and abuse of power is only to be expected from an organization that has the authority to accuse anyone of criminal activity without any requirement of proof; if they accuse you of a crime, you bear the burden of proving yourself innocent.

A review of the Treasury Department's own Inspector General Reports for the past two years reveals the widespread nature of criminal activity at the IRS.  During that period alone, there were more than 17,000 complaints made to the inspector general's office involving IRS agents engaging in "bribery, theft, impersonation, taxpayer abuses, and false statements."

What this latest scandal -- and indeed, the entire history of the IRS -- clearly demonstrates is the fact that the income tax is wholly incompatible with a free society.   The notion that the government is entitled to a certain portion of your wages before you even receive your paycheck is a direct contradiction of the most basic tenet of liberty: private property.  It is no exaggeration to say that once Congress was granted the power to levy an unlimited tax upon incomes, its members assumed the power to render every American under absolute tyranny.  The 16th Amendment imposes no limits on the income tax; quite literally, the Congress could vote tomorrow that Americans must pay all of their income directly to the government, and it would be legal and constitutional for them to do so.

The practical effect of all this has been the total abrogation of private property rights in America.  If the income of every American is essentially state property, by what means can a person obtain any other private property?  The income tax has made every wage-earner a slave to the federal government; the extent of his freedom is entirely dependent upon the whim of the Congress.

In 1871, on the eve of the repeal of Abraham Lincoln's Civil War income tax measure, the commissioner of internal revenue described the income tax as "the one of all others most obnoxious to the genius of our people, being inquisitorial in its nature, and dragging into public view an exposition of the most private pecuniary affairs of the citizen."  This is a very apt description; a person's income is a very private matter, which the government now exercises constant surveillance over.  Your employer reports to the government every cent you make.  Your bank and broker, under threat of fines or imprisonment, report every penny of interest or profit you accrue.  Likewise, you are required under penalty of law to file a tax return each year to reconcile your debt to the government.  As former treasury secretary Albert Gallatin is reported to have said about consumption taxes, "a severe inquisition must take place ... and extraordinary and dangerous powers must be given to the collectors."

Unless and until the income tax amendment is repealed and the IRS's 98,000 henchmen are sent packing, the abuses will continue, as they have for nearly a century.  Only when the government is no longer entitled to maintain constant surveillance over every citizen's personal financial affairs can we begin to restore the freedom Americans once enjoyed.  Like all men in all ages, those given extraordinary and dangerous power will use it to tyrannize others, and as such, this particular power has no place in a free land.

Todd Keister is a former state police commander, a naval intelligence specialist, and a published author and columnist.

1Roth, William V., and William Nixon. The Power to Destroy. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1999.



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