I am conspicuously not a libertarian. I believe that government has valid purposes that are more than minimal, and that public service is essentially noble. But most Americans, myself included, become libertarians when a policeman is rude and swaggering during a traffic stop. Give me that badge number. It is precisely because police powers are essential to the public good that abusing them is so offensive. The same holds for overzealous or corrupt TSA agents. And it is doubly true with IRS personnel who misuse their broad and intimidating powers. It is enough to bring out the Samuel Adams in anyone.
The temptation to abuse power has deep psychological roots. During the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, some students were randomly assigned as guards in a mock prison, while others were designated as inmates. The exercise had to be stopped after six days because the guards became aggressive and abusive. There are serious risks at the intersection of minimal preparation and disproportionate power.
Earlier this month, during his commencement address at Ohio State University, President Obama said: “Unfortunately, you've grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity. … They'll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.”
Now part of his own administration has powerfully amplified those voices. If he expects Americans to reject them, it is his personal responsibility to act decisively in restoring the ruined reputation of the IRS.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.
Washington Post Writers Group