A Law Onto Itself: The IRS and the Abuse of Power by David Burnham

by | Mar 11, 2002

The author, a former investigative reporter, shows that the agency has virtually unlimited authority to invade your privacy, seize your wealth, ruin your reputation and generally make your life miserable.

This book uncovers everything you want to know about the IRS—and the revelations are shocking. The author, a former investigative reporter, shows that the agency has virtually unlimited authority to invade your privacy, seize your wealth, ruin your reputation and generally make your life miserable.

With 123,000 employees, the IRS is the country’s largest law-enforcement agency—larger than the FBI, the CIA and the New York City Police Department combined. It is also the agency with the greatest means of intimidating its potential targets. It is able, for example, to confiscate the property of anyone it asserts owes some tax. It does not have to allow time for an appeal or even an explanation; it need only wait 30 days after mailing (or claiming to mail) a demand for payment.

It is able to audit at will any tax return and to insist—without any reason even to suspect wrongdoing—that the taxpayer document every entry and answer hundreds of questions about his personal finances. “The legal burden almost always rests with the taxpayer to prove his or her innocence,” says Burnham.

But the real injustice of the IRS lies not so much in the fact of its vast power, but in the arbitrariness of that power. The tax code is too complex and too vague to be understood by the human mind. It requires 2,200 pages to print and, according to Burnham, “neither the taxpayers, the tax practitioners on whom the public relies for expert tax advice (and pays $3.5 billion per year) nor the IRS itself actually understands many of the provisions of the tax law.” Money magazine once arranged for 50 professional tax preparers to fill out the same tax form of intermediate difficulty—and got 50 different answers.

And the real injustice behind this injustice is that the tax laws are deliberately subjective. Burnham explains: “From the perspective of the IRS, can it not be asserted that the more ambiguous the law, the more powerful the enforcing agency? . The reality that so many are somehow in violation of a supremely murky law gives the agency and the individual agent an astonishingly free hand to pick and choose the targets.” The bureaucrats at the IRS feel there is little to restrain them in their zealous pursuit of your money, whether or not you actually owe any tax. “Millions of essentially innocent taxpayers every year are subject to some form of wrongful action by the IRS,” Burnham says. Yet most choose not to fight such claims because 41 “they simply conclude that it’s cheaper to pay.” Sadly, they are often right.

The agency takes an imperial attitude toward taxpayers. For example, it simply assumes that dealing with Swiss banks is per se an indication of tax evasion. So arranged with the Postal Service to lift the names of those in the U.S. who receive mail from banks in Switzerland. It deliberately targets public figures for harassment, in order to “make an example” of them. It runs a secret wiretap school and has (illegally) installed eavesdropping equipment.

But its most dictatorial response is reserved for those who dare to challenge IRS authority. It has fined people for adding, at the bottom of their properly completed tax forms, the statement: “signed involuntarily under penalty of statutory punishment.” And if you are bold enough’ to write a letter-to-the-editor arguing that the income tax is unconstitutional, as one courageous Buffalo taxpayer did, be prepared for his fate: a week of being closely followed by fourteen top IRS investigators equipped with a van and surveillance gear.

The IRS is an unchecked threat to everyone’s liberties. Burnham’s horrifyingly informative book should put us all on alert—particularly Burnham himself.

This review is made available by the Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books)

The Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books) is your source for books and lectures for those interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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