What are the lessons from the recent IRS scandal surrounding the targeting of conservatively named groups for heightened levels of tax status scrutiny? Is it that there is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country and this is just the tip of the iceberg? Is it that Obama is the fiendish mastermind behind these directives? Although neither is impossible, the likelihood of either scenario is dubious at best. Conspiracy theories that involve the government are a peculiar sort. They are often germinated by those who assert on one hand that government is as effective in its stated goals as a flopping fish but then on the other hand claim that when it comes to the conspiratorial acts it possess the organizational acumen of a stealthy ninja.
This scandal demonstrates not the intent of a scheming mind but rather is a mockery of the hubris of those who believe “we” or anyone can “control” an entity as large as government. From the complexity of such large entities there emerges certain properties that are neither predictable nor directed (in biology known as “emergent properties”). The emergent property we are seeing here is “selective enforcement.” We tend to think of government as this monolithic entity acting with a singular will. This interpretation turns a blind eye to the obvious truth that “government” is composed of freely acting individuals who can, and often do, whatever they wish. They act with impunity, reaching out from behind the collective government shield that protects them. Occasionally the shield is pierced, as with the IRS scandal, and we are allowed for a brief moment to bear full witness to the results of granting our agent (government) absolute autonomy over ourselves.
The fact that the outrage around this scandal is so misdirected is a testament to how inured we have become to government intrusions. The scandal should not be that these rules were selectively enforced but rather that such rules exist at all! Abstractly the scandal can be as summarized as follows: the rules say everybody that wants a cupcake must have their knees smashed with a baseball bat. But that takes too much time and energy, so they just started smashing in the knees of people they didn’t particularly like. Then people got upset because it was unfair they weren’t bashing in everybody’s knees. We’ve been beaten down so long it seems almost “crazy” for someone to suggest perhaps the beatings should stop (yes – I mean this metaphorically people.)
But, what can we expect when we have granted fallible, petty, capricious human beings nearly unlimited power over other fallible, petty, capricious human beings. How does slapping the label “government” on one group magically change their nature? It doesn’t, and that’s the problem.