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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

We’re all crooks

Inscrutable rulemaking leaves us at the mercy of government

We’re all crooks

Photo by Elizabeth Simpson/Getty Images

I felt like a common criminal—or worse. The policeman was telling me that unless I backed off, he might arrest me on three charges.

I had been driving home from work on a narrow shortcut. Confronting me, and crowding me from the left, was a huge lumber truck. On my immediate right was a large construction site, to which I assumed the truck was headed. All but invisible in the busy scenario was a rusty steel fence, right in the roadway and barely separating my lane from the building site. No signs, no flashers, no blinkers. Not even any reflectors.

Let’s just say there wasn’t room for all of us. I heard the clip of broken metal—but it wasn’t until I reached home that I discovered the fence had proven way too strong for my right-hand outside rearview mirror, dangling now by a few helpless wires.

No way was I about to confront the burly chief of the construction crew with claims of his men’s carelessness in planting their fence right on the roadway. But certainly, I thought, if I called the police, they’d see the folly of the setup. Certainly, the police would quietly nudge the contractor into paying the $200 a new mirror was going to cost me.

“Yes,” the cop told me when I stopped in at the nearest police station. “You can file a report. I’ll take down the details if that’s what you want me to do. But I should also tell you, Mr. Belz, that if we do a report, I might have to arrest you and enter charges against you.”

“Charges?” I asked unbelievingly.

“Yes,” he said. “The report itself would say that you caused damage with your careless operation of a motor vehicle, that you were responsible for a hit-and-run incident, and that you left the scene of the accident.”

Now wait a minute! Getting my name on the public record as an inadvertent crook had hardly been my goal. I was just looking for a bit of commonsense justice.

It’s altogether possible to write public laws, rules, and ordinances in a simple and relatively brief fashion.

All of which reminds me that we have just reached the point on our calendars when almost every one of us has been set up as a potential breaker of various federal laws. I refer, of course, to our liability as taxpayers. It’s a remarkable system in which we all report to Uncle Sam intimate details of our financial existence—and then wait in fear for the assurance that we didn’t make some mistake that will cost us a big fine, if it doesn’t land us in jail.

In the same way that I felt a bit of blackmail at work when the policeman told me the possible consequences of my pursuing a minor injustice, we all sense an implicit blackmail at work with the Internal Revenue Service. The laws that tell you how much tax you owe are so complex that only a few citizens dare, on their own, to propose a figure they are pretty sure will hold up to a challenge or an audit. Instead, most pay extra sums for professional help or for insurance to cover the risk. That’s a tax upon a tax.

It’s altogether possible, as I’ve suggested here before, to write public laws, rules, and ordinances in a simple and relatively brief fashion. Take the Ten Commandments, for example. Even if you add to them all the case law and examples in the rest of the Pentateuch, and then throw in as footnotes everything Jesus said about the law, you could easily fit it all in a printout of current IRS rules. Tests involving IRS experts show that even they very often don’t agree with each other on all the implications of the tax code.

I guess we should hardly be surprised that a government that is so much wordier than God is also greedy. God teaches us to remember Him with 10 percent of our income; our civil governments regularly demand two and three times that amount.

And if we don’t ante up, they come after us. Like the cop who reminded me that I didn’t want my name listed as a violator, your tax collector has a way of getting his stern message across.