Our daily mail is heavy with the pleadings of harassed citizens who have become ensnared in the coils of government. Several have declared bitterly that their faith in their country has been shaken. Some have written that the government's hounding has driven them almost to the point of suicide.
Though a few are cranks, the majority write sober, sensible letters. Some include documentary evidence to back up their stories. "I have been accused, judged and found guilty," declared a typical complaint against a bureaucratic ruling. "Apparently, I have no re-course but to accept this judgement."
It is all too true that Americans are becoming opressed by the faceless bureaucrats in their cubicles who seek to rule and regulate the citizens they are suppose to serve. One of the irreversible currents I have observe during 30 years of covering Washington is the hankering of own bureacrats to transform the American Republic into a tyranny.
They have raised no banners, staged no coups. Nor are they attended by pomp and panoply. The imperials presence is as pervasive, nevetheless, as it is imperceptible.
The federal government has spun such a web of regulations, each new agency adding to the tangle, that it is almost impossible for a citizen to go about his business without committing violations. Dozens of permanent agencies, employing 2.8 million people, oversee every phase of life from teaching baby care to prescribing burial methods.
Permeating it all is the atmosphere of pseudo-divinity with which government these days surrounds itself; its denial wherever it can get away with it of the right of the citizen to know; its reflex hostility to every attempt to hold it to account or even question its motives. Each year, the bureaucratics princes become more impenetrable, more impervious to public control.
Anyone who deal with government or makes out a tax return can find himself in the soup. In theory, an innocent person had nothing to fear from the federal regulators. But once a citizen's neighbors and assosciates are questioned, a cloud of suspicion is raised that may be dispelled. His reputation may be ruined even though he is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Though most federal officials try to be fair and most agencies don't condone coercive investigations, the bureaucratic system tends to uphold the abuses of those enthrenched officeholders who regard themselves as the sovereigns rather than the servants.
They usually are able to summon the massive weight of the U.S. government behind their rulings and recommendations. For most agency heads, unfamiliar with the details of a case, are inclined to accept the judgement of their subordinates.
I have spoken to several attorneys who have defended clients in federal cases. Most of them complained about the government's tactics. "The government," siad one, "is the most unfair and corrupt opponent that you will have in a courtroom."
The regulatory agencies, if they are to justify the expansion dear to the hearts of all bureaucrats, must constantly draft new regulations. They must seek new activities to regulate, new jurisdictions to conquer, new citizens to investigate. Let an errant soul like Bert Lance get his name in the newspapers and investigators from a dozen government aganecies will pounce upon him. It isn't every day that they can find a newsworthy figure to investigate.
Tax disputes more than any others have given many harassed citizens a glimpse of the other face of Uncle Sam when he scowls. More than one hard pressed taxpayer had found himself in trouble because of a trivial or unintentional error in an old return. The files at the Internal Revenue Service are also stuffed with complains from taxpayers who say they have been bullied and browbeaten by collectors.
Revenue agents naturally defend themselves against charges of wholesale callousness. They point out that, since biblical times, the tax collector has always been the most disliked of officials. It is their duty, they point out, to take in money on which national security and domestic services depend. Every defaulting dollar means a dollar that some other citizen must pay.
The federal government also has make-or-break power over more than 40 per cent of the nation's businesses. The regulatory agencies, for example, can all but destroy any transportation, telephone, electric or radio-television company simply by giving the thumb-screws an extra twist.
The multiplication of federal agencies has resulted in a corresponding proliferation of paperwork. Several government contractors have complained to me that they have become so entangled in red tape they can hardly avoid tripping over it. They must spend so much time filling out forms, auditing books, contending with attorneys and warding off investigators that they cannot possibly give full attention to their government projects.
In part, this is the fault of profiteers who have bilked the taxpayers in the past and have compelled the government to tighten controls. But some agencies have now become obsessed with audits and investigations. They have seized upon techincal violations and treated respectable businessmen like criminals.
For many contractors, government profits no longer are worth the harrassment. Some have served notice they will never bid on government contracts again. A General Services Administration official has admitted that he doesn't blame them. "We are fighting with every contractor we do business with," he said wearily.
Sometimes Uncle Sam holds up payment until the small contractors, desperate for money to meet his bills, settles for less than he is supposed to get. Worse, the government has also been known to use criminal charges to coerce obstinate contractors into accepting a civil settlement.
Most Americans still look upon Uncle Sam as a benevolent big brother. But there has been developing in our federal bureacracy an alarming tyrannical streak.