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A More Benign Tax Collector

On this day after "tax day," citizens who made the deadline can take heart for another reason. Most IRS investigators, we're told on good authority, are not quite the SWAT-squad zealots portrayed during congressional hearings last year.

The good authority is an independent review panel chaired by former CIA and FBI chief William Webster. The panel's report finds no "systemic" pattern of abuse by IRS Criminal Investigation Division agents. It wisely added, however, "that even isolated instances of abuse of authority can create impressions that undermine the public's confidence."

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Americans won't soon forget last year's parade of harassed taxpayers - from business owners whose premises were searched to average people bewildered by bulldog-like IRS tactics regarding inadvertent tax errors. A resulting law strengthening taxpayer rights and the agency's vow to become more "customer-friendly" should help.

The Webster panel was most concerned that IRS agents are too often diverted from their tax-collection duties to assist with drug cases and other law-enforcement tasks. It rightly recommended they should concentrate on their primary job of tracking down some of the $195 billion in unpaid taxes each year.

Holding all citizens to the same standard of honesty is, after all, a vital part of a fair system of taxation. This system is undoubtedly more complex than it needs to be, and it requires vigilant oversight But let's not forget, it's also the envy of much of the rest of the world.

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