A mere 100 years after the United States threw out the politicized mess that was the old tariff system, the new tax code is just as politicized, just as messy, and substantially more intrusive. History has repeated itself, and that says something about the nature of government.

Liberals complain about the inefficiencies and inequities of the free market. And, in some circumstances, their complaints are valid. An unregulated marketplace is not necessarily going to produce the social outcomes we consider just. This is why both sides agree on a basic regulatory regime; the differences between left and right are usually reducible to a debate over its size and scope. But the history of taxation in America demonstrates that the political marketplace can be just as inefficient and unfair, sometimes even more so. If the profit motive is not necessarily conducive to social harmony, neither is the reelection motive.

In light of this, maybe it is time for conservatives to rethink their approach to tax policy. Implicitly, many on the right still see the tax code in the same way that Hamilton and Clay did, as a wonderful tool to redirect social and economic outcomes for the betterment of all. But the history of American taxes demonstrates that the noble cannot exist without the ignoble, and the latter inevitably triumphs. For after the work of men like Hamilton and Clay is done, men like Aldrich invariably emerge to pervert public policy toward their own, selfish ends. And the Aldriches always seem to outnumber the Hamiltons and the Clays.

The rallying cry of small-government advocates in the late 19th century was a “tariff for revenue only!” They understood the kind of corruption that a complicated tariff or tax code inevitably breeds, despite the best intentions that the public-spirited might have. The IRS scandal demonstrates just how right they were.