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Citizens, Not Customers

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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"We provided horrible customer service,” outgoing acting commissioner of the IRS Steven Miller told the House Ways and Means Committee on May 17, referring to evidence that his agency had targeted Tea Party groups for special scrutiny in determining tax-exempt status. The passing remark, which so neatly captured the attitude of condescension and entitlement Miller brought to the hearing, was part of an apology. As grovels go, it wasn’t the best.

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Yet Miller’s implicit comparison of the federal tax collection bureau to just another service provider—your auto mechanic, say, or the chopped-salad place down the street —was nonetheless revealing. And it creates an opportunity for conservatives and Republicans.

When the IRS doesn’t do its job, one cannot take one’s business elsewhere. Uncle Sam is the only game in town. And he can stick you in jail. On the other hand, if a CVS pharmacy fails to satisfy, if a clerk is rude, one can try another branch, or visit Walgreens or Walmart or Target or even, if it still exists, the local mom-and-pop store.

This is what economist Albert O. Hirschman called the ability to “exit” from an organization in decline. Exit from a national tax code, of course, is possible only if one is willing to go the full Depardieu and renounce one’s citizenship. The rest of us are stuck with the IRS, and must rely on Hirschman’s concept of “voice” to change the law.

What government does is administer the law. “Customer service” it does not provide. Confusion sets in when flawed analogies are made between government and something it is not. Miller’s comment, for example, raises more questions than it answers. Who exactly are the customers the IRS serves? American taxpayers? Congress? Political appointees? Or does he mean the unelected and all-too-often unaccountable civil servants who manage the bureaucracy?

And what, specifically, was the disservice in question? Miller could have been referring to the slow-walking of Tea Party applications for tax exemption, or to the fact that the agency did not subject progressive groups to similarly intrusive and intensive examination, or to the dodgy way the IRS handled the disclosure of the inspector general’s audit of its activities. There’s really no way to know.

To reduce the complexity and power of government to the language of exchange—you either purchase a good or service or you don’t—is at the very least absurd. But it is the sort of absurdity one might expect when one realizes the agents of our government are just as confused about its purposes as our elected officials are.

A happy consequence of the IRS mess would be if conservatives took the opportunity, in between the high dudgeon and special investigations, to explain to the public the true purposes of government. A government whose primary object is to secure the natural rights of its citizenry would not be so invested in regulating political speech and association. A government whose elected representatives met to promote the general welfare through simple laws,  equally binding on all, would not write gigantic bills, such as the tax code, Affordable Care Act, and the current omnibus immigration reform, which grant massive discretionary power to largely autonomous administrators. A government with a system that taxed all forms of income equally, and perhaps derived much of its revenue from sources other than income tax, would have less need of an imperious IRS.

This is also a moment for conservatives to reintroduce the concept of exit into policy debates. Exit is a conservative principle. There may be no escaping the IRS, but initiatives to allow the states room for experiment would grant Americans the ability, through the power of opting-out, to hold declining institutions to account. Taxpayers already migrate from high-tax, high-expenditure states to low-tax, low-expenditure ones.

But why stop there? Deny the IRS further power over American lives by repealing Obamacare. Welcome homeschooling, Internet-friendly deregulation, and school choice, increase health care competition through price transparency and point-of-service payment, privatize government services where appropriate, create the option of shielding income from tax through universal savings accounts—all of these measures would enhance the freedom and prosperity of America.

Ultimately, it would be a waste if the investigations consuming Washington led to nothing but posturing and lawyering and political drift. Better to make Steven Miller famous as the spokesman for an unlimited and arrogant government, and to direct the Tea Party energies loosed by this scandal toward a program of choice, competition, and renewal. That would be the best service Republicans could provide.

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