Tag: abuse of power

Is This the Libertarian Moment?

In 2008 Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch hailed a “libertarian moment,” encompassing everything from the Internet to the collapse of “legacy” industries and legacy entitlement programs. I’ve used the same term here, when NPR talked about Ron Paul and when polls showed rising support for smaller government, gay marriage, and drug legalization.

But suddenly, today, everyone seems to see a libertarian moment. Driving in to work, I got so tired of the smug self-satisfaction on public radio’s pledge drive, I switched to the vigorously right-wing Chris Plante Show just in time to hear Plante say, “This is a great day for libertarianism” in regard to the abuse-of-power stories dominating the mainstream media.

And then, mirabile dictu, I got to the office, opened the Washington Post, and found today’s column by Michael Gerson. Now, as he says in today’s column, Gerson is “conspicuously not a libertarian.” Indeed, he is the most vociferously anti-libertarian columnist in contemporary punditry. And yet his column today is titled (in the print paper):

Making libertarians of us all

Man, you’ve got to abuse power something awful to make Michael Gerson start thinking libertarian. So thanks, IRS and Justice Department!

And now that the Obama administration’s abuse of power has got our attentioncan we broaden our focus to take in health care mandates, recess appointments, campus speech regulations, the anti-constitutional Independent Payment Advisory Board, similar extra-legislative bodies in Dodd-Frank, the expropriation of Chrysler creditors, and illegal wars? 

IRS Chief, Who Defended Illegal ‘ObamaCare’ Taxes, also Denied Targeting of Tea-Party Groups

In 2011, members of Congress began criticizing a proposed IRS rule implementing ObamaCare’s health insurance tax credits. They claimed that the proposed rule violated the clear language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as congressional intent, by issuing those tax credits in states that declined to establish a health insurance “exchange.” In effect, they claimed the proposed rule would result in the federal government taxing, borrowing, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars without congressional authorization. 

At the time, then–IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman leapt to his agency’s defense. He wrote that various provisions of the statute “support” the rule. He wrote that the “relevant” legislative history doesn’t show that Congress didn’t want the IRS to tax, borrow, and spend those hundreds of billions of dollars. He wrote that the proposed rule is “consistent with the language, purpose, and structure” of the law. The only thing he didn’t do was cite a provision of the law authorizing the rule, or even creating any ambiguity about the rule’s illegality.

The IRS finalized that illegal rule in May 2012. You can read all about it in my article with Jonathan Adler, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”

It is worth noting that Shulman also leapt to the IRS’s defense against another charge that the agency was abusing its power. In 2012, conservative groups complained that the IRS was targeting them for audits. Shulman issued a forceful and categorical denial:

IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting groups based on their political views.

“There’s absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people” who apply for tax-exempt status, Shulman told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

Shulman was wrong. Today, the IRS admitted it has been targeting conservative groups for audits

Perhaps some Friday afternoon hence we will be treated to an IRS admission that their tax-credit rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the PPACA, as two lawsuits now allege. I won’t hold my breath.

Power Corrupts (Now With Science!)

The humor site Cracked rounds up some serious social science on the psychological effects of power and authority. The results are sobering—if not entirely surprising. When people in experimental environments were made to feel as though they were powerful—either by recalling actual instances for their lives or by being placed in simulated positions of power for a few hours—researchers found that they became less compassionate, less prone to take the perspective of others, more able to lie without feeling guilty about it, and more prone to consider themselves exempt from the rules and standards they righteously insist apply to others. What’s striking is how quickly and easily the experimenters elicited dramatic behavioral differences given that (unlike people who actively seek power) their “powerful” and control groups were randomly chosen.

It’s useful to keep this in mind because, while the overwhelming lesson of the last half century of social psychology is that situational influences can easily swamp the effect of individual differences in character, our political rhetoric takes scant account of this. Political campaigns focus heavily on questions of “character”—which especially in the case of “outsider” campaigns should be of limited predictive value. Republican candidates and officials try to portray Democrats as arrogant and out of touch, while Democrats cast Republicans as callous and greedy. In each case, the message is that these are bad people, and their character flaws are somehow related to their specific ideologies. The remedy is, invariably, to replace them in positions of power with better people from the other team. These social science results suggest that this is unlikely to work: The problem is power itself.