OPINION: Some things, only the government should do

In his 1981 Inaugural Address, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” That credo may apply when government is invading the sphere of private businesses, but it should not apply to a fundamental function of government.

Two of these fundamental functions are the power to impose and collect taxes, and the power to prosecute and incarcerate for crimes. To me, these powers go to the very nature of government. Yet, in these same two instances the current administration (and, in fairness, the past administration) has been abdicating the government’s responsibilities and hiring private companies to perform these fundamental government functions.

The imposition and the collection of taxes is firmly embedded in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. It should not be delegated to private entrepreneurs, neither by the Internal Revenue Service nor by the State of Ohio.

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On the national level, using private debt collectors will give con artists the government imprimatur as they prey on unsuspecting citizens, especially our senior citizens. These con artists use robo-calls to threaten immediate litigation and/or arrest, inducing panic — a panic induced by the wide-spread fear of the IRS — by thousands of seniors who have then lost millions of dollars.

Up until now, the damage from these robo-calls has been tempered by widespread assurances that the IRS never uses telephone calls to pursue taxpayers. But now, those assurances may be worthless because some of these calls may actually come from an IRS-authorized debt collector. So, it will be more difficult for unsuspecting senior citizens to reject these calls in the years to come.

For years, Ohio has been using private debt collectors to pursue scofflaws, but in my experience as a tax lawyer, these private debt collectors have fallen far short in representing the state as fairly and judiciously as its citizens deserve.

Another fundamental function of government is incarcerating convicted criminals. Some years ago, the federal government shifted some of its prison operations to several for-profit corporations. Over the years these privately run federal prisons have held 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners, or more.

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In 2016 the Justice Department under President Obama began to phase out private prisons because of their costs and because of deep concerns about the safety of inmates. In the fall, Donald Trump campaigned on expanding private prisons. Not surprisingly, the private prison industry supported Trump. Their investment paid off. On the day after Trump’s victory in the election, the stock price of the biggest private prison operator went up by a walloping 43 percent. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked the “phase out” plan, and the private prisons are thriving again.

Incarcerating a person for committing a crime is a very serious deprivation of liberty. A government given this power has the concomitant responsibility to exercise it wisely, judiciously and fairly. It is morally unacceptable for our government to abdicate its responsibility and turn these prisoners over to private companies who may be more concerned about corporate profits than the humane treatment of prisoners.

These issues are not about saving jobs for IRS union workers and they are not about creating jobs in the private sector. They are about respecting and preserving the fundamental functions of government and not let them be turned into profit centers for private entrepreneurs.

Dayton attorney Merle F. Wilberding is one of our regular community contributors.

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