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.

Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

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  1. Rudy Hernandez says

    Is the ultimate problem then the university, more so than the administrative state? If IRS employees come to the job hostile to the words “Constitution” or “liberty” where else can it come from– but the colleges and law schools? If it is a problem of the administrative state—then Congress needs to act to limit the discretion of Treasury—rather than lose the idea of civil service entirely. I worry about trying to reform the institution of tax collection to better reflect the result of the elections—the other side wins elections, too.

    • Ken Masugi says

      The Progressives conceived of public administration and higher education working together for the scientifically directed progress of humanity. This perspective can be found in both parties, on the right as well as the left. You’re right on tax reforms as well. And this raises a problem for managing the Fed politically.

  2. Ken Masugi says

    The “Progressive” outfit Propublica admits receiving IRS info about conservative groups. “Just 13 days after ProPublica sent in its request, the IRS responded with the documents on 31 social welfare groups.

    One of the applications the IRS released to ProPublica was from Crossroads GPS, the largest social-welfare nonprofit involved in the 2012 election. The group, started in part by GOP consultant Karl Rove, promised the IRS that any effort to influence elections would be “limited.” The group spent more than $70 million from anonymous donors in 2012.”

  3. gabe immordino says

    Another spot-on post! I think the problem that we have today is that we have been conditioned to substitute memorization for learning and, further, “learning” for wisdom. Nowadays, sufficient conditioning within and through the academy is deemed wisdom. Add to that the presumption of competence afforded government officials and we are “doomed.”
    Next on the agenda: “Common Core” and mandatory universal pre-school indoctrination -oops!, I mean education, now don’t I?

  4. Ken Masugi says

    Good to hear from you Gabe. Hope you’re faring well. I have a private message for you, if we can communicate somehow.

  5. Ty Wiggins says

    Good article, and my first time at this site.
    What is the solution to the administrative state?
    There is no way bureaucracies will allow themselves to be pared down to a manageable level, and in the event, what is a manageable level?
    It seems like “Government” is always the center of attention- it’s always at the fore-front of the news. I would think that the government should be in the background, not a constant source of anxiety. What has happened to what Ayn Rand referred to as the American ” sense of life”?

    • Ken MasugiKen Masugi says

      Ty, those are great questions, and you’ll find responses to them over time at this site. Do check the archives in the different categories. At a certain point, well after the Civil War and about the turn of the last century, more Americans felt that what government could do for them more than what their own individual rights and freedoms could secure. That’s the short, simple answer. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a somewhat longer answer, which still requires elaboration.


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