If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve heard about the admitted targeting of Tea Party Patriot groups applying for nonprofit (and thus untaxable) status. Conservatives are livid: it seems, at first blush, to be expressly political. The more conspiracy-minded are sure that Obama’s secretive hand is behind it all (and, presumably, Benghazi). Even those who aren’t so conspiratorial are upset that the IRS would engage in political activity.
But here’s the thing: we tend to treat “political” subjects as though they were divided from the rest of our lives by a curtain wall. Chalk it up to a penchant for compartmentalization. We can cut off the “political” from the “nonpolitical” conceptually, but in the real world, the “political” also has content. We argue about things that matter to us, and if they matter to enough of us, these problems become political.
Taxes are one of these “political” subjects that also contain content. In this instance, and this instance only, I can see why the IRS did what they did – and I’m not mad.
Let me explain: it’s not irrational for institutions to pay special attention to other groups that oppose what they do. The IRS is charged with the fair collection of the taxes mandated by law, and part of their job is to make sure that people who don;t want to pay taxes don’t get away with underpaying. These Tea Party groups are ideologically opposed to taxes, which means that they oppose most IRS efforts.
It’s not, then, strange that the IRS would pay special attention to groups that have a special incentive to not pay taxes. While most people might be tempted to cheat a little out of sheer financial consideration, Tea Party groups may very well contain elements that would feel that underpaying (even illegally) would be justifiable on ideological grounds.
The IRS investigating their ideological opponents isn’t too different from the way that law enforcement groups pay special attention to pro-marijuana legalization groups. If members of a group believe that they are doing the right thing by subverting the efforts of an institution, then they have an extra reason, beyond the usual, to take actions punishable by that institution.
If it’s “political” to oppose or support the collection of taxes, then the IRS cannot be said to be engaging in nonpolitical action in any case. The collection of taxes, the job of the IRS, becomes instantly political – and therefore, liberal (by Tea Party standards).
But the IRS has perfectly valid nonpolitical reasons to investigate their ideological opposites. Members of the IRS have a job to do, and it’s logical to investigate those most likely to fudge the numbers. While Tea Partiers may believe that their political actions constitute “the common good,” it’s not clear that their political actions justify a tax-exempt status. After all, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, there’s never been a truly destructive war except between two groups of people who believe that they’re completely in the right.
EDIT: This isn’t to say that government institutions should strike out into political territory that isn’t central to their core mission. Especially when that political territory is explicitly partisan. The IRS need not have any position, for example on immigration, despite the tax implications of immigration, TINs, and collection from nonregistered immigrants. But when there are people that explicitly oppose the institution’s core mission, there’s every reason to make sure that opponents are still complying.