Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Paradox of authority

Rep. Trey Gowdy grills lackadaisical IRS Commissioner John Koskinen:

“What criminal statutes you have evaluated?”

“I have not looked at any,” the IRS commissioner admitted.

“Well then how can you possibly tell our fellow citizens that there is no criminal wrongdoing if you don’t even know what statutes to look at?” Gowdy followed-up.

“Because I’ve seen no evidence that anyone consciously—”

“Well how would you know what elements of the crime existed? You don’t even know what statutes are in play.”

Investigations tend to come up empty when you don’t actually investigate.

Recall last year FBI Director Robert Mueller didn’t know who from his office was investigating the IRS a month after they supposedly launched an investigation. Investigations are existentially contingent on there being investigators. If the investigators don’t exist, the investigation doesn’t exist.

If it were 2011, there might be a greater effort to save face for the voters’ benefit. Regardless, unmoored, big government looks out for number one, so it naturally runs operations against Constitutionalists.

Victor Davis Hanson writes:

Under Lois Lerner, the IRS’s tax-exemption division targeted conservative groups to defang them before the 2012 election—and then attempted to cover up that perversion of the agency. Lerner herself pled the Fifth Amendment, and now we learn that much of her key e-mail correspondence mysteriously disappeared from her computer. E-mail records from six other IRS officials of interest likewise vanished. The IRS also improperly handed over tax files of particular groups to the FBI for investigation. It is no exaggeration to state that the IRS has now surrendered its reputation as an impartial agency and lost the public trust.

Michael Gerson amplifies on that theme:

When the stewards of power—biased judges, or corrupt policemen, or politically motivated IRS officials—act unfairly, it undermines trust in the whole system.

Trust in the federal government declined dramatically since the 1960s. Some Americans are now predisposed to believe that their government—the product of their own choices, channeled by durable, admirable institutions—can’t be trusted with the collection of metadata, or with the use of drones (which might be employed by the president, according to Sen. Rand Paul, to kill citizens at cafes).

In the past, I’ve often criticized such attitudes as conspiratorial and destructive. A democracy needs respected, capable public institutions. No traditional conservative, in this sense, can be anti-government. We need government to do its job, to play its role and to justify the power and resources we properly cede to it. “Respect for its authority,” said George Washington, “compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.”

But the IRS has managed to feed anti-government sentiments by inhabiting anti-government stereotypes. It has undermined respect for authority.

Authority is somewhat of a misnomer here. Public servants earn the public’s trust and respect through regular demonstrations of competence, diligence, and virtue. It wields power only as long as those whom who are wielded over consent. We let them tell us what to do as long as we agree with what they tell us to do.

This point goes further than Lois Lerner and the IRS. The halls of power are filled with people who were put there by people who do not trust them.

The authority losing the public’s trust and respect is not the public servant, but the public itself. Some say diversity is strength. If anything, it’s difference and disagreement. Liberal, tolerant society can undergo so much disagreement over fundamental truths before it fractures.

UPDATE (7/3): Last night Bruce Utley gave a talk to my church about Psalm 2. He dropped this brilliant line about authority:

Authority is established when someone is able to elicit compliance because others want to follow.

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