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.