Every American ought to support the underlying concept of catching citizens who cheat on their taxes. Honest taxpayers are increasingly bothered by the fact that others evade this responsibility. The American tax collection system relies heavily on voluntary compliance: For it to work, taxpayers must be confident that it is equitable.
The Internal Revenue Service has adopted new approaches in an effort to crack down on tax evaders - from those who make huge amounts of money such as drug traffickers to those who hide small amounts, such as craftsmen who accept only cash in payment and do not report this income to the IRS. The aim of the IRS program is laudable.
But one aspect is dubious. The IRS has established guidelines which it says are to limit its agents from seeking information on a suspect's income by posing as professionals in other fields - physicians, lawyers, clergymen, or journalists. The IRS says agents had begun using such subterfuge too often, and that restraint was needed.
There's a better solution: No such tactic should ever be permissible.
Just as the IRS needs the public's confidence, so do professional people in all fields. For IRS agents or anyone else to portray themselves as members of other professions can chip away at citizens' confidence in the real professionals in these fields. Ultimately this is damaging to society.
When an arm of the government itself resorts to subterfuge to catch lawbreakers, the public becomes uneasy - witness public concern about the tactics the FBI used in the Abscam undercover operation against members of Congress, even though several were convicted. Ultimately such subterfuge is counterproductive for government, which requires citizen confidence in its aboveboard integrity.
We take the IRS at its word when it says the guidelines would reduce the amount of such subterfuge. Yet it is extremely unwise to give written permission through guidelines for taking such actions.
And the history of the IRS itself over the past 20 years has included many accusations, some by former employees, of excessive zeal that almost amounted to persecution in the collection of money from small taxpayers. Subterfuge should not be included in the IRS's enforcement arsenal.
There's a practical point as well: The IRS has a bevy of sophisticated computers and a corps of skilled accountants. It should rely on them to catch tax cheats, not on agents in disguise.