Op-Ed: Don’t Forget About the Petty Tyrannies


The way political discussion is so largely driven, perhaps even dominated, by the 24 hour news cycle, it isn’t terribly surprising that almost all attention gets fixated on big issues like the debt ceiling, the healthcare bill, or whichever other political drama is in focus any given week.

That’s a shame, because while those issues matter, in the big picture it is what I tend to think of as the petty tyrannies of government that have the real impact on people’s lives.

What exactly do I mean by petty tyrannies?

They manifest in a myriad of forms but here’s a few that come to mind right off the bat:

  • Speech codes at public colleges and universities that deny both students and faculty their free speech rights
  • Eminent domain abuse where local governments appropriate land from its owners and give it to politically connected beneficiaries
  • Occupational licensing restrictions that ensure it is costly and time consuming for anyone new to enter in to an industry
  • Asset forfeiture laws where police can seize private property on suspicion of involvement in drug deals and the owner must prove innocence to regain what is rightfully theirs

The reason I want to highlight these petty tyrannies, besides the fact that they don’t get enough attention, is to commend one of the groups that is constantly out working to prevent everyday, normal people from them.

That group is the Institute for Justice.

A libertarian-oriented legal firm, IJ focuses on finding individuals who are being victimized by government engaging in precisely the sort of abuses I highlighted above and representing them, both to get government to stop their attacks on them and to ensure that everyone is safe from such actions.

I’m particularly a fan of their work pushing back against occupational licensing rules, like those requiring government approval to be an interior designer or eyebrow threader, or even outright prohibiting innovative entrepreneurs like food truck vendors.

That’s why I wanted to share news about one of IJ’s newest cases, where they are helping several small, independent tax preparers sue the IRS.

The arguments for IJ’s position in the case seems very clear cut, so I’ll be interested to see how this ends up playing out in court.

First of all, Congress never gave the IRS the power to regulate tax preparers or issue licenses for them.

Second, the regulations were heavily supported by licensed CPAs, who carved out an exemption to the requirement and large tax preparation firms like H&R block, which can easily afford to absorb the costs associated with the licensing.

Third, as Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason, has pointed out, this move will likely do nothing to decrease errors in tax returns:

But–and this is the important thing–forcing this guy to spend a thousand bucks on continuing education and more on fees isn’t likely to mean more accurate returns overall. For one thing, a bunch of his clients will probably go back to doing their taxes themselves rather than pay increased rates. For another, there’s a longsad, history, of bad advice being given out by the IRS itself, something its just as likely to do in those $50/hour seminars as it does on its free advice line. And for an unfair anecdotal third thing, H&R Block once filed all of my freelance journalism income as farm income.

While I don’t think I can stress enough how exciting it is that someone is challenging the IRS on such a transparently poor policy and how important the work is that IJ is doing on this and countless other cases, there is one final point I want to make.

Those petty tyrannies are or more properly speaking, the fight against them what libertarianism is really about, at least in my mind.

Sure the big issues, like the insurance mandate and tax rates, they matter. But it’s the petty tyrannies where government truly interferes in people’s lives in a meaningful, noticeable way. And I think it says something that it’s the libertarians, either individually like Radley Balko, or through groups like IJFIRE, and the ACLU that are at the front of fighting them – and winning.

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