The Asymmetric Outrage of Big Government Scandals

Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) has apparently had enough of both the IRS and Eric Holder, and thinks that it’s time for both to go. But I was struck by this comment of hers:

She feels the outrage over the politically motivated targeting is generally uniform throughout the House: “I think there’s enormous bipartisan outrage. This transcends party lines. We would be just as outraged if they were targeting liberal organizations.”

I’m willing to believe that the outrage is bipartisan, at least to some degree -- there are many Democrats who see the danger here. (Even if the concern is simply regarding what might happen in a future Republican administration.) But I’d be willing to bet that the outrage remains much higher on the Republican side of the aisle than on the other.

What really struck me was the absurdity of the notion that such a thing could have happened to “liberal” organizations, even with a Republican administration. The reason is that this may not be a consequence of a lawless, hyper-political White House, but of a deep-rooted bureaucratic culture:

The IRS is not supposed to be a partisan agency. The federal bureaucracy was explicitly designed to be non-partisan so that it would impartially enforce the tax laws and regulations passed by the Congress and approved by the Executive. But the IRS like many other federal bureaucracies tends to be staffed by people -- especially at the management level -- who believe in robust, activist government. In other words: it is staffed mainly by Democrats. And however nonpartisan the organization is supposed to be, it cannot help but reflect the culture of the people who comprise it. The IRS, being led by and staffed with activist-minded Democrats, cannot help but reflect that worldview. The culture reinforces itself because adherence to the culture is the only way to move up. Dissenters and contrarians do not last long in an organization like the IRS (any more than they do at the FBI or EPA or DOJ).

I don’t know if this is true, but I think it would be the way to bet, and this is even more frightening than a lawless and hyper-politicized White House. If true, what are the implications?

Well, for instance, it means that the counterfactual described above -- the IRS (or any federal agency) going after organizations favorable to Democrats in a similar manner, even with explicit White House direction -- would only occur in a galaxy far, far, away.

Imagine that George W. Bush had given speeches describing the illegitimacy of “progressive” organizations like MoveOn.org, had called them a “threat to democracy,” or had refused to denounce his vice president’s characterization of them as “terrorists.”

Imagine that he had used crude and sexually derogatory terms to describe them. Or had implied that they criticized and hated him because they hated white people.

Further, suppose that the press not only wasn’t outraged, but instead agreed with him and even elaborated on his calumny, denouncing the racist and un-American terrorists at Soros-funded groups.

In this alternate universe, a press corps that went into “journalism” to “make a difference” has somehow miraculously transformed itself into cheerleaders for conservatism.

Back in reality, does anyone expect that a massive government bureaucracy, whose very existence and future growth is contingent on the continuation of big intrusive government, would actually start to give harsh scrutiny to organizations that are its own cheerleaders?

Take it a step further. Suppose that the White House had not only publicly identified its political enemies, but also had sent the explicit message to the bureaucracy -- via phone calls, emails, even official memos -- that it was to make life as difficult for them as possible.

Would they then salute and follow orders?

Of course not. We know exactly what they would do: leak the emails and memos to the press. Some might even publicly resign in protest, in a noisy press conference with their Pearl Harbor files in hand.

That any significant number of them would have actually followed administration dictates would be unthinkable, because their colleagues and superiors would shun them per the culture described above.

In the real world, none of that happened, of course. There would be a few noble souls who fought it, but for the most part, the troops dutifully went along, because it made perfect sense that enemies of their own agency (and of course the benevolent state itself) must not be allowed to carry out their nefarious and evil schemes. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, after all.

This is the danger the Founders foresaw, but that too many in our day have forgotten or never learned. The State will always attempt to arrogate power unto itself and grow, and will develop intrinsic antibodies to any attempt to rein it in, and defenders of liberty and limited government will always have to wage an uphill fight just to hold the battle lines, let alone avoid continued retreat. Let us hope that in this overreach, it will be (as the state’s defenders might themselves say) a “teachable moment” and a rare opportunity to significantly roll it back.