Throwing Sticks and Stones at the IRS


Both independent and partisan observers have long described the United States as an ox or a mule that refuses to turn or move on the inclinations of an unpredictable caretaker. Symbolically, of course, we the people are the unpredictable and often unstable caretakers of our own nation.

Mules are not resistant to movement because they lack intelligence or because they cannot pick up their legs and walk. They simply hate being forced to move against their will, especially with a guide that seems to constantly change course. Mules are smart enough to know when their guides have no direction.

“Most who undertake to halter or harness them for the first time are even more stubborn in their disposition than the mule. They commence to break the animal by beating him in the most unmerciful manner, and that at once so excites the mule’s stubbornness, that many of them, in this condition, would not move an inch if you were to cut them to pieces.”

In Central Tennessee during the early 1920s, a young girl recalled an amusing method that her brother-in-law had used for getting stubborn mules to carry cedar up a hill: build a fire under their bellies and set it ablaze. The animal will either change its mind and move or stick to its guns and burn. [Funny how we still express our disgust with a lazy man by saying that someone should light a fire under his ass.]

Despite our endless resistance to change, Americans are just as eager to find solutions for problems as any other nation. We simply move at the pace our Founders intended; a balance of power that forces us to engage in deliberation and debate. Richard Weaver, writing in 1948, described it this way:

“These political architects approached democracy with a spirit of reservation. Though revolutionaries by historic circumstance, they were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it is an expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent… the framers placed special obstacles in the way of change.”

Our current president will probably never live down the slogans of hope and change that dominated his first campaign, yet proved almost impossible to achieve from the White House.

During his run for office in 2008, then-Senator Obama drew frequent applause from audiences when he denounced the situation in Guantanamo and insisted that if elected, his administration would immediately close the detention facility. At the time, Obama could almost always elicit a reaction from those who had seen images of Abu Ghraib and knew that America was in violation of habeus corpus. Simply put, Guantanamo was an easy target for public resentment.

However, when Obama took office and signed an executive order to close the facility within one year, Gallup surveyed the public and found that only 32% of the people supported his objective; a figure that nearly matched the numbers of his party base and seemed to make it more of a liberal cause than an overwhelming priority for the nation. At the time of the poll, roughly 20% were undecided or refused to share their opinions and nearly 45% of the participants were able to clearly state their opposition. The applause was over.

Despite running a successful campaign, making endless promises, and signing an executive order, the ox never moved.

Average Americans tend to be results-oriented. If a would-be president floats the idea of closing a long standing facility or operation, we look to the end game and ask any number of common sense questions.

In the case of Guantanamo, where do the prisoners go? Do they receive trials in the United States? Do they enter American prisons? Do we release them for lack of sufficient evidence?

Americans are capable of finding answers, for they are all good questions, but none of these issues were ever seriously introduced by Obama or anyone else who shared his ideal of closing the facility. The idea had merit, but no one had seriously mapped out the questionable alternatives and opened them up for public debate.

Today, a small pocket of conservatives are floating a different idea, claiming that the time has come to lock all doors into and out of the Internal Revenue Service.

End the Fed and Abolish the IRS, they say.

Younger voters may not recall much about the Presidential Race of 1996, but it was during this rather dull and humdrum campaign that Steve Forbes infused a most unusual of promises, becoming the first to vow that he would utterly “scrap, kill, and drive a stake through the heart” of our IRS. After receiving 11.41% of the primary vote, the Forbes campaign quickly drifted out of contention while Senator Bob Dole rose to the eventual challenge of facing and losing to an incumbent president.

Reflecting on his short-lived run for political office, the New York Times described the Forbes candidacy as a race against the IRS more than a race against his Republican rivals. Any government agency that gathers revenue from the people is bound to become “the capital’s most kickable dog,” but pragmatic conservatives thought abolition was much too extreme an idea to be taken seriously.

So you can throw stones at the IRS. Don’t we still have to collect revenue?

Conservatives more than understand that our nation’s survival depends on revenue and spending in one form or another. Even Barry Goldwater, who’s Conscience of a Conservative outlined the most explicit views of his party in the 1960s, said this about taxes:

“It must be said that every citizen has an obligation to contribute his fair share to the legitimate functions of government. Government, in other words, has some claim on our wealth…”

He would, of course, clarify that such claims on our wealth should be limited, but the right of our government to gather revenue was ultimately acknowledged and rightly so. Advocates of an Abolish the IRS mantra cannot ignore the essential needs of a functioning government to receive revenue. Without revenue, the government fails to operate. Without an operational government, the nation falls into a predictable anarchy, often supported by strict libertarians who argue that all government is contrary to the better angels of human nature and should, therefore, be entirely destroyed.

Several years ago, Sean Hannity wrote a forward to The Conservative’s Handbook, praising it as “one of the most important pieces of conservative work in recent memory.” And in it, author Phil Valentine says this:

“I love the idea of dismantling the IRS. The fact that people would have more control over how much they’re taxed is also appealing. The IRS knows way too much about us.”

Setting aside the jump from an idea to a so-called fact, no one has yet laid out an authentic, competent explanation of what the nation would look like in the absence of an Internal Revenue Service.

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution establishes the responsibility of Congress to lay and collect taxes, an assignment that ultimately falls to a secondary agency, such as the IRS, that can actually gather, count, and pass that revenue information back to the powers-that-be.

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

So we dismantle the IRS. What then?

The first possibility is that taxes would continue to be collected or organized, but the function of doing so would fall to a new office with a new name operating almost exactly like the IRS. Of course, in the latter scenario, there’s always a chance the Congress would attempt to single-handedly manage the incoming and outgoing dollars of American taxpayers, leaving no one to deal with legislation. Either way, this doesn’t make our government more efficient.

A second possibility is that no taxes would be collected or organized at all, thereby leading to unclear budget figures in the House and an eventual government shut down of all key offices lasting longer than just a few weeks or months.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider one other scenario, appealing almost exclusively to the anti-tax, anti-government Americans.

Without the IRS or an entity that satisfies a similar purpose of managing revenue, the entire Federal Government could become a charity case in which citizens give, invest, or withhold taxes at their own discretion. Who would be there to enforce revenues if the IRS no longer exists? Citizens affiliated with a party would give taxes to the governments run by their own leaders and withhold taxes from governments run by parties they oppose.

Militaries, roads, public education, and law enforcement be damned in the name of partisan politics.

Sound extreme? Too far? Not realistic?

That’s the point. Without a practical and civilized option for gathering, organizing and budgeting continued revenues within the United States, any talk of abolishing the IRS is nothing more than sensational rhetoric.

In 1997, following the Forbes campaign, Americans were asked about whether or not the IRS should be abolished. Being extremely careful in how they defined the parameters of their question, Gallup posed it this way:

“Which of the following would you prefer — for the IRS to remain a separate agency in the federal government charged with collecting taxes, or, for the IRS to be abolished and its duties transferred to another federal agency?”

Notice the “and its duties transferred” after abolished, signifying an alternative within the question. Gallup wasn’t asking an open-ended survey. Either the IRS maintains its existence or it goes away and someone else gets their job responsibilities. You can’t expect the IRS to disappear and pretend that taxes won’t soon be collected by someone else in a different office.

Congress makes the laws that either complicate or simplify our taxes. The IRS merely enforces those laws, then collects and organizes the revenue from our taxes.

In the survey, approximately 42% of the respondents favored abolishing the IRS and giving the responsibility to another office while 47% favored leaving the IRS as it is. In other words, those who wished for the IRS to be abolished had to at least acknowledge that taxes would not cease to exist. Someone else would take the job that the IRS once did.

By 2000, Gallup did another survey, leading analysts to conclude that while Americans didn’t particularly enjoy this part of their government, the IRS still did a pretty good job of collecting taxes when all was said and done. Something had changed in public opinion and it didn’t happen by chance.

Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska joined with Republican Congressman Rob Portman of Ohio to draft A Vision for a New IRS in June of 1997, citing many of the issues that Forbes had brought to light in his campaign. The result of their vision led Congress to institute the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998.

By 2008, a mere decade after the changes were passed, a panel of independent tax analysts determined that the IRS had become “a more taxpayer-friendly agency” as a result of restructuring. Taxes and tax collection certainly wasn’t more enjoyable, but tax collectors were learning the art of customer service, focusing on how to assist and aid citizens in the process rather than carrying themselves as tax enforcers. The success of the Kerrey-Portman bill was reminiscent of President Truman’s effort to reorganize the role of tax collectors into a position of civil service.

So why resurrect more “Abolish the IRS” rhetoric after more than a decade of relatively peaceful co-existence between Americans and the IRS?

Today, those who speak of abolishing the IRS appear to lack a clear vision of what the alternative would look like. Nor does it appear that these individuals are eager to have a conversation about the questions that would be required in the wake of such a massive change.

Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, both poised for possible presidential runs in 2016, are probably the most public figures to rebuild steam for “Abolish the IRS” sentiment around the country. And without a practical alternative, both men seem likely to face the same political and presidential fate as Forbes. Yes, there will always be an audience to jump on the anti-taxes bandwagon, but average, thoughtful Americans should still wonder about the end game.

If the IRS were abolished, as Paul and Cruz now recommend, who will take on the responsibility of managing ongoing revenues? Neither man has proposed an existing alternative, which leads us to draw one of three conclusions.

The first possibility is that they intend to create a new office that looks like the IRS but happens to be called something else. This amounts to watching an entire company move to a different building because they didn’t like the color of the carpet in their first building.

The second possibility is that they intend to bring all revenues to the mailbox of Congress. This amounts to having cash, checks, and all other forms of revenue placed in or near the hands of lobbyists, lawmakers, and anyone else who wanders through the halls of the Capitol Building. We might call this a most literal interpretation of the Constitution, since the Founders did not establish a separate agency and explicitly stated that Congress alone has the ultimate responsibility of collecting taxes; a few hundred lawmakers managing the revenues of 300 million Americans.

The third and final possibility is that Paul and Cruz have absolutely no intention for revenue management whatsoever. This amounts to a society in which anarchy is encouraged through the guise of freedom and liberty.

Our nation is bulging with unpopular institutions that include the IRS, the EPA, the DOE, the NSA, the ATF, and on and on. But each institution serves a purpose that must be accounted for with every call for abolition. Like the stubborn mules of Tennessee, our nation can climb any hill and carry any weight, but we will never move forward on a path for which we have been given no clear direction.