It’s tempting to say that Republican officials don’t believe in anything, that what the party has done in power has been an exercise in pure nihilism. The only real purpose of government is to be bad at governing, so that the concept of government itself can be discredited, so that nothing may constitute, let alone act on behalf of, any sort of public interest.
ProPublica’s account of the systematic defunding of the Internal Revenue Service told more of that same story, at first. Inspired by conspiracy theories about political persecution, but mostly to punish the IRS for existing and doing its job, Republicans have spent eight years starving the agency of the money it needs to go around collecting taxes.
As policy, it’s irrational: the less the government spends on tax enforcement, the less revenue it collects from everywhere else. The agency’s budget cuts are, as former IRS commissioner John Koskinen put it, a “tax cut for tax cheats,” which ProPublica estimated has cost the government “at least $18 billion every year”—that is, at least $16 billion in losses against the $2 billion gained by cutting the annual IRS budget.
Yet the piece went on to explain it’s not that the Republicans want the agency to do nothing at all. There is one core function that is too important to abandon, even as IRS auditors lose the capacity to chase down millions hidden overseas:
The story has been different for poor taxpayers. The IRS oversees one of the government’s largest anti-poverty programs, the earned income tax credit, which provides cash to the working poor. Under continued pressure from Republicans, the IRS has long made a priority of auditing people who receive that money, and as the IRS has shrunk, those audits have consumed even more resources, accounting for 36 percent of audits last year. The credit’s recipients — whose annual income is typically less than $20,000 — are now examined at rates similar to those who make $500,000 to $1 million a year. Only people with incomes above $1 million are examined much more frequently.
The lone surviving purpose of the IRS is to harass poor people. It’s a reverse Willie Sutton scheme, to go where the money isn’t. The Republicans in government do have a belief system, after all: the belief that the people without money are always, out of wickedness, trying to get one over on the people who do have money. It is the principle that organizes their world, the way that hunting for witches organized the world for premodern societies. The factual senselessness of it gives it meaning; the cruelty of it gives it moral force. Accountability might upset the social order, but punishment keeps everything right where they want it to be.