By Steve Kelman

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How the IRS scandal is like ethnic profiling

TSA agent

One might not think that questions of airport security and IRS scrutiny would be connected, but Steve Kelman finds a link. (Stock image)

In following the IRS Tea Party scandal, I've been struck by an analogy. The targeting of Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status and debates about whether, say, young male Muslims should be targeted for extra scrutiny at airports raise the same set of issues.

It is simply a fact that most terrorists threatening the United States, Europe or Israel are young male Muslims. A strong argument could be made that random extra scrutiny of airport passengers is highly inefficient – producing bizarre anomalies such as heightened scrutiny for 85 year-old grandmothers – and that ethnic profiling would increase the chance of catching a terrorist. Indeed, this has been Israel's strategy at airports.

Similarly, it is simply a fact that a group such as the Tea Party that is fundamentally a political organization is more likely to violate the (apparently very expansive) rules limiting political activity for social welfare organizations than is a Knights of Columbus chapter that might do a small amount of political activity on issues such as abortion. To treat both organizations the same way is inefficient. Indeed, if one wanted to use more dramatic language, one could say that treating both kinds of organizations in the same way would be an example of government waste.

If anything, targeting young male Muslims is more problematic than targeting local Tea Party organizations. Although most terrorists are young male Muslims, the vast majority of young male Muslims are not terrorists, so in targeting them, the government would be overwhelmingly targeting innocent people. By contrast, the chances that a local Tea Party organization would be engaged in political activity that would produce a failure to qualify for tax-exempt status would seem to be much larger. (To be fair, though, the downside of failure to pick out a terrorist is much greater than the downside of failure to catch an organization that shouldn't be getting tax-exempt status.)

But the demands for ethnic profiling at airports (which were rejected in the United States, even in the height of post-9/11 anxieties) and the IRS profiling of Tea Party organizations both remind us of the old saw that government is not just about efficiency. We are, and should be, willing to sacrifice some degree of efficient performance in government for protection and fair treatment of innocent individuals or groups.

There is an irony here, though, which is that I am guessing that Tea Party supporters and Republican conservatives are more likely than most to have supported ethnic profiling of potential terrorists. There is a second irony, which is that an important mission of the congressional government affairs oversight committees is to promote efficiency in government.

While I definitely agree – as illustrated by the IRS and ethnic profiling cases -- that efficiency is not the only goal in government management, it certainly should be an important goal. Too often in government, the correct statement that government cannot care only about efficiency morphs into a philosophy that efficiency is not important at all – a philosophy that then causes the same oversight committees to rail against government waste. And certainly the efforts to criminalize bad judgment by IRS civil servants here are unlikely to foster a mentality inside government that one should aggressively be looking for ways to be more efficient.

Posted on May 23, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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