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Don’t scapegoat the tax collectors

Defunding the IRS should not be a shibboleth on the right

The Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky

Don’t scapegoat the tax collectors
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Tax Day. Few placeholders on the national calendar are so apt to provoke heartburn among most Americans, even though that most workers are more likely to receive a refund check than a bill when April comes around. Grumbling about taxes has been an American pastime since at least 1765, but this is nothing new: A remarkable proportion of Jesus’ ministry was spent talking about taxes or the despised tax collectors. Today, popular hostility toward the Internal Revenue Service seems almost as widespread as the Jews’ hatred of Roman taxmen. But is this a rational posture?

If anything, calls to “defund the IRS” on the right look suspiciously like the angry scapegoating of the move to “defund the police” on the left. Both prefer to sidestep the hard work of reforming inequitable laws in favor of the easy demagoguery of denouncing law enforcement. After the new Republican House majority finally succeeded in electing a speaker after a historic struggle in January, its first order of business was to pass a bill rescinding more than $70 billion in funding for the IRS that the Democratic-led Congress had voted for just last year. Although this naturally got nowhere in the Democratic-majority Senate, it raises important questions about how conservatives should think about our much-maligned IRS.

Most of the new hires, it should be noted, would not be auditors but aimed simply to address the chronic understaffing that has made most interactions between taxpayers and the agency a source of misery to both sides. Data shows that in 2022, only 1 in 10 calls to the IRS reached a human being, so the first thing the agency did with the new funding last year was to hire and train 5,000 new customer service representatives. And with a backlog of more than 10 million unprocessed returns at the start of last year, it was clear the IRS needed help. Given that for ordinary taxpayers, the vast majority of such returns result in refunds rather than demands for additional tax payments, working Americans stand to benefit from a higher-functioning agency.

That said, Democrats had trumpeted their IRS funding bill as a way to reduce government deficits by catching more tax cheats, and Republicans maligned it as an attempt to “target working families.” Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that the repeal of the bill would result in a $114 billion deficit over the next decade. It’s not hard to see why. Just as crime rates have skyrocketed in places where liberals have slashed police funding, so tax evasions rise in the absence of enforcers to hold taxpayers accountable.

If taxes are burdensome or unjust, then they should be repealed, not left unenforced.

Although the vast majority of citizens cheerfully obey laws and pay taxes without coercion, a handful will misbehave if no one is looking, human nature being what it is. Perhaps that’s why one of the New Testament’s few passages on government highlights “the sword” to punish the evildoer and the need to pay taxes (Romans 13:4, 6).

Many conservatives will protest that taxes are too high as it is, so why should we want more tax enforcement? Liberals use similar arguments for defunding regular law enforcement: “Too many people are locked up for trivial drug offenses, so let’s stop policing.” In fact, this argument points the other direction. If taxes are burdensome or unjust, then they should be repealed, not left unenforced—just as drug laws should be changed if they are really resulting in unjust incarcerations. One of the best ways to generate momentum for repeal, it turns out, is often strict enforcement. Teddy Roosevelt famously employed this strategy while serving as New York City’s police commissioner in 1895, relentlessly enforcing an unpopular law that closed all bars on Sundays rather than allowing unprincipled saloon owners to bribe policemen to turn a blind eye.

The alternative to such principled enforcement is a system in which conscientious taxpayers are left footing an ever-larger bill for an ever-greater number of less conscientious nonpayers. Of course, more law enforcement is not always pleasant. More police officers on the streets is liable to mean more traffic tickets for ordinary citizens, and more IRS agents is liable to mean more audits for ordinary taxpayers. Democrats have tried to sugarcoat their policy by falsely claiming that all of the enforcement will be focused on “wealthy tax cheats” earning more than $400,000 a year. Conservative fact-checkers have pointed out that more IRS funding will almost certainly also mean more audits for middle-class and working-class taxpayers.

Such questions deserve strict scrutiny, just as with debates over police funding. Some funds are certain to be misspent, and the agency should be held accountable to ensure impartial enforcement and minimize harassment of ordinary citizens. However, we must be careful to distinguish taxes and tax enforcement. If taxes need to be reduced, let’s reduce them. But in the meantime, let’s not demonize those hired to collect them on behalf of the public.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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