A Law Unto Itself

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the 1970’s, David Burnham became widely known for exposing corruption in the New York City police department. In 1983, his book THE RISE OF THE COMPUTER STATE explored the effect of computerized bureaucracies on representative democracy. With A LAW UNTO ITSELF, he examines an influential and increasingly computerized law enforcement institution the is also vested with extraordinary powers.

Authorized to level civil suits against alleged wrongdoers, the IRS may also initiate criminal suits in which the burden of proof lies with the accused. If the agency suspects that an individual may take drastic action to evade payments, it can seize property without seeking prior authorization from a judge. It has access to a staggering amount of information that can be gleaned from more than a billion documents as well as other sources. It also exercises discretion over that assignment of tax-exempt status to charitable organizations.

Over the course of his book, Burnham describes numerous occasions when such daunting powers appear to have been misused. Some cases, such as an instance in which a computer harassed taxpayers despite court injunctions barring such action, can be attributed to mismanagement and institutional inertia. Others, such as decades of collaboration between a wealthy Pennsylvania family’s tax preparers and tax agents eager to accept their bribes, point to serious corruption. Still others illustrate the propensity of a wide range of government officials, from tax agents to Presidents, to use the IRS in pursuit of political rather than revenue-related goals.

Although he fails to marshall his data in a particularly persuasive manner, Burnham presents enough information to raise serious questions about IRS integrity and to support arguments for the agency’s reform.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. February 12, 1990, p.16.

Choice. XXVII, June, 1990, p.1753.

The Christian Science Monitor. February 21, 1990, p.20.

Library Journal. CXV, March 1, 1990, p.104.

Los Angeles Times. March 7, 1990, p. E9.

The New Republic. CCII, April 9, 1990, p.40.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, February 11, 1990, p.1.

Reference and Research Book News. V, June, 1990, p.18.

Time. CXXXV, February 5, 1990, p.67.

The Wall Street Journal. April 13, 1990, p. A9.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, February 11, 1990, p.1.

A Law Unto Itself

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the United States’ most respected investigative journalists, David Burnham has long devoted himself to exploring the nation’s most complex and powerful institutions. As a reporter for The New York Times in the 1970’s, he exposed corruption in the New York City Police Department and thereby triggered significant reform. His subsequent probes into the nuclear industry and, in The Rise of the Computer State (1983), the effects of computerization on American democracy, bear witness to his ongoing concern that fundamental freedoms and rights may be threatened as bureaucracies and technologies develop to a degree unimagined in the earliest days of the nation.

Certainly the Founding Fathers could not have anticipated the tremendous growth of the Internal Revenue Service in the decades following World War II. A survey of American tax history in the opening chapter of A Law Unto Itself: Power, Politics, and the IRS establishes that, with few exceptions, federal taxation activity was extremely limited prior to the Civil War. In 1862 the Office of the Commissioner of Revenue, created along with the first income tax, became a fixture in the federal system. Constitutionally questionable, the tax itself flickered in and out of existence until 1913, when the Sixteenth Amendment authorized Congress “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Together with these landmark events of 1862 and 1913, Burnham suggests, the establishment of the withholding tax in 1943 was the foundation of the national taxation system of the late twentieth century.

Providing the United States with monetary muscle befitting a world power, the federal taxation system developed into a similarly powerful and well-entrenched bureaucracy: The approximately 123,000 employees on its payroll in 1989 made the IRS the largest law enforcement agency in the country. Although its agents use the catchphrase “voluntary compliance” to describe the manner in which the organization intends “to collect the proper amount of tax revenues at the least cost to the public, and in a manner that warrants the highest degree of public confidence in our integrity, efficiency and fairness,” the agency’s unique power creates an atmosphere in which anything but compliance would appear to be prohibitively risky. Able to level criminal suits against alleged wrongdoers, the IRS may also initiate civil suits in which the burden of proof lies with the accused. If the IRS suspects that an individual may take drastic action to evade payments, it can seize property without seeking prior authorization from a judge. It can identify delinquent taxpayers by comparing extensive data gleaned from tax returns (194 million in 1988), third-party reports (approximately one billion annually), and an information-sharing plan involving the tax agencies of every state and New York City. Officers may even order banks and other institutions to provide additional information.

Considering the manifest persuasiveness of such power, it is not surprising that Burnham finds the IRS essentially effective as a collector. In 1988, for example, the agency collected almost one trillion dollars, 90 percent of the amount the government estimated taxpayers were required to pay. Eighty percent of the tax dollars were collected using the withholding tax; in comparison, enforcement projects brought in about 2.8 percent of all 1988 tax revenue.

Burnham contends, however, that the agency’s might often places citizens at a great disadvantage in defending themselves against abuses arising from the enforcement of a Byzantine tax code that confounds taxpayers, professional tax preparers, and IRS agents. Burnham presents numerous case studies to argue that the organization urgently needs reform. Yet he frequently fails to establish whether many of the problems he identifies are isolated or truly widespread. In one example, Burnham cites a case involving two taxpayers to suggest that thousands of others have suffered grave harm because of IRS computer errors. Although Gina and Paul Husby’s challenge of a 1986 IRS claim required the agency to suspend its collection activities, the couple received four more dunning notices within the following twelve months, after which the IRS began serving notices of levy on their assets. Even after a Federal District Court judge enjoined the IRS from issuing more liens and levies, the agency...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)