WSJ: Say, who's running the government?

That’s the logical question to ask after an avalanche of official denials of knowledge and responsibility from the IRS, Department of Justice, and the White House.  “I don’t know” seems to be the new mantra of executives at every level once questioned about wrongdoing and abuse.  The editors of the Wall Street Journal wonder not where the buck stops, but if it even exists anywhere in the federal government:

There’s a certain infantilization of the federal government here that should be especially alarming to taxpayers who have ever crossed paths with the IRS. The agency has the power to make citizens lives miserable, ruin their businesses and garnish their wages. Anyone facing an audit is unlikely to get away with the evasions now in display in the federal bureaucracy.

If the scandal is showing anything, it is that the White House has a bizarre notion of accountability in the federal government. President Obama’s former senior adviser, David Axelrod, told MSNBC recently that his guy was off the hook on the IRS scandal because “part of being President is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”

In other words, the bigger the federal government grows, the less the President is responsible for it. Mr. Axelrod’s remarkable admission, and the liberal media defenses of Mr. Obama’s lack of responsibility, prove the tea party’s point that an ever larger government has become all but impossible to govern. They also show once again that liberals are good at promising the blessings of government largesse but they leave its messes for others to clean up.

In my column today for the Fiscal Times, I argue that this epidemic of sudden incompetence and ignorance completely undermines the argument for large, activist government.  That’s true whether one believes that these executives are either telling the truth or lying about their knowledge and involvement:

So what are we to think about this competence epidemic of executive ignorance, impotence, and incompetence?  The symptoms are either self-serving lies intended to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, or genuine statements of impotence and ignorance.  Either way, it demolishes the argument for bigger and more activist government.

Start with the credulous assumption that everyone is telling the truth about knowing nothing about what happened on their “watch,” as Schulman said, from the top down. David Axelrod tried to use this defense a week ago, telling MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”

That, of course, is precisely the argument conservatives make for scaling down the size of government.  Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been told the same about Cabinet-level positions (Attorney General Eric Holder) and sub-Cabinet positions (IRS commissioners within Treasury). If Schulman’s argument is that he can’t be expected to account for the performance of his 90,000-member organization, then the federal government at every level is too large for proper accountability and management.

Of course, if all of these executives from Barack Obama on down are fibbing about their knowledge and actions, then one can argue that the federal government hasn’t grown too large to manage.  That still, however, leaves the question of accountability open.

If government can effectively deny responsibility for damage and abuses, and no one is held accountable – no one has even been disciplined at the IRS, for instance – while the rights of Americans are trampled and freedom of the press infringed, then the big-government model doesn’t work, either.

David Harsanyi is on the same page:

Though it’s imperative to get to the bottom of the Justice Department’s attacks on the First Amendment, the Benghazi situation and the IRS’ attack on free speech — for most people, the most tangible and comprehensible of all the recent scandals — it is also imperative to point out the conditions that make this kind of abuse possible. The raison d’etre of the Obama era, ultimately, has been to convince you that government is trustworthy. It isn’t.

If, as some argue, a few pencil pushers have the capability to obstruct the right of thousands of Americans to assemble (without being noticed for a year), then the IRS is too vast. If, as others argue, higher-ups surely gave the orders to shut down conservative groups, that tells us the IRS is too easily corruptible — and too powerful.

It is also impossible to compartmentalize government from politics. Democrats have treated limited-government types not as political opponents or mere ideological adversaries but with a deep moral contempt typically reserved for violent enemies of the state. Those who were targeted were — as left-wing politicians and pundits have tagged them — radicals, extremists, nihilists, racists and so on, people who congregate in groups funded by dirty money provided by puppet masters. Why wouldn’t the IRS want to investigate these people?

Now, I’m under no misconceptions that America is about to go libertarian. But heightened skepticism toward power is good news. So for those who believe in limited government, this might be the time not only to attack Obama but to argue that abuse of power is the perpetual condition of an activist Washington, not a quirk of the times.

Either way, this vindicates Clint Eastwood yet again, no? People ridiculed Eastwood for portraying Obama as an empty chair at the Republican convention.  Nine months later, White House has made the empty chair its primary defense over the last couple of weeks. Talk about fallback positions …