Questions as to whether Timothy Geithner, Obama’s pick for Treasury Secretary, has paid all his taxes or followed immigration law concerning his housekeeper raise an interesting point. The scrutiny surrounding confirmation hearings presents one of the only opportunities politicians get to see what it is like to be harassed like a normal American citizen. Only during scandals like these are government officials given a taste of their own medicine, and it is such a bitter taste that the more humane among us might sympathize even with our would-be rulers as their lives and finances become open to inspection and public criticism.
Consider the rich irony in Geithner’s case. He seeks to be the head of the Treasury, and thus the head of the IRS, which commands an apparatus of staggering intrusiveness nearly unparalleled in all of human history. The IRS notoriously enjoys a certain exemption from the standards of Anglo-Saxon law; the presumption with tax cases is that you are guilty until proven innocent. Every year, millions of good Americans are terrorized by the organization. Many have their homes, their savings, their businesses confiscated, all supposedly in the name of creating a great society for all. IRS agents give the wrong advice to Americans filling out their taxes about a third of the time, but getting it wrong under their instruction is no excuse when error is found.
In addition to the nightmare of mid-April, the Treasury and other departments have burdened Americans with thousands of regulations that invade every facet of financial life. Democrats are even worse rhetorically than Republicans in this regard. In response to cries for immigration reform, the most common proposal from Democrats is to crack down on employers, to spy on them and threaten them with fines and imprisonment if they do not pry into all their employees’ lives to ensure none are illegal aliens. Aside from being a threat to the freedom of contract, this guarantees increasing government involvement into business and erosion of privacy and civil liberties. Much of the rationale behind the horrific Real ID Act can be attributed to this particular desire to ferret out illegal immigrants.
And so what a scene we have: A national Democratic leader in potential trouble for violating employment regulations; the chosen chief of the Treasury, which brings in trillions of dollars annually by taking it by force from those who earned it, himself accused of not putting in his fair share.
From the standpoint of freedom, however, Geithner’s true rip-off of the American people is not in his alleged tax evasion. All by itself, not paying taxes is not a scandalous crime. An everyday taxpayer would not deserve media attention for this. And as head of the New York Federal Reserve, Geithner did far more to compromise economic fairness than he could have possibly done with his tax forms; as Treasury Secretary, he would undoubtedly do much more. Furthermore, from the perspective of liberty, Geithner’s villainy is not in the fact that he might have hired an illegal alien so much as it is in the hypocrisy by which he and so many other government officials hold themselves to a standard of law radically different from that to which they hold the rest of us.
A little hypocrisy is ubiquitous in nearly any society, but the issue of government always raises the stakes and makes it all the more egregious. It may be an insult for someone to verbally criticize you for a vice, such as smoking, only to light up himself minutes later. But for the government to impose the will, the ethics, the standards of some politicians on you by force even as they do what they claim should not be done—that is a different, much worse form of hypocrisy altogether.
Which brings us to William Corr, Obama’s choice for the second slot at the Department of Health and Human Services. Corr is an anti-smoking advocate and both he and Obama seem to support an agenda, to be carried out by the Democratic Congress, of “increasing federal regulation of cigarettes, raising taxes on tobacco products and approving an international tobacco control treaty,” as the New York Times puts it.
Obama has gotten attention as the first open cigarette smoker to be elected president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and yet he seems to have no problem pushing around smokers, making their habit more expensive (tobacco taxes always hurt the poor the most), and even internationalizing an issue that should not even be dealt with at the national level under our Constitution. In a free society, tobacco, along with other drugs, would be handled locally, and ideally by the family and community, and not at all through the criminal justice and regulatory systems. Yet politicians who drink alcohol or smoke tobacco or even have tried illegal drugs think very little of taxing, regulating, harassing and even jailing their fellow citizens for doing the same.
It has long been frustrating to watch a politician who smokes tobacco or drinks alcohol champion the war on drugs, all to stem the tide of chemicals that don’t kill nearly as many people as tobacco and alcohol do. Perhaps it is even more frustrating to see a president who smokes cigarettes wave the anti-smoking banner. Government crusades against drugs, cigarettes or other vices always fail to uplift the moral character of the people, but they are great ways to destroy liberty and personal responsibility and are reliable sources of high hypocrisy.
Just this week we have seen two exemplary cases of political hypocrisy pop up in the area of Obama’s political appointments. Again, such appointments are one of the few occasions when the media really explore the hypocrisy saturating the personal lives of politicians. If they were watched this closely year round, we would find ever more examples all the time. But in all such cases, whether it is Al Gore consuming enough electricity for 20 people as he flies around condemning carbon emissions, or a Republican leader caught straying from the very family values he has claimed should be imposed on us all by national planning, the real problem in the hypocrisy is not usually the politicians’ personal indiscretions, which usually fall short of any offense against the public safety or liberty. No, the real problem with such hypocrisy is that it is borne by politicians who implement their plans for a Brave New World on their compatriots without considering the human costs, the destroyed wealth, the uprooted lives, the lost liberties, the jailed innocents. If Geithner agreed to butt out of our finances, and Obama agreed to let people smoke as they will, it is doubtful we would not happily reciprocate and leave them alone as well.