In a recent essay, Custom and the Rule of Law in the Administration of the Income Tax, Larry Zelenak examines what he calls “customary deviations,” or “established practice[s] of the tax administrators . . . that deviat[e] from the clear dictates of the Internal Revenue Code.” Even though the IRS makes decisions every day about when not to enforce the tax law, tax scholarship does not typically examine this phenomenon systematically. By focusing on an aspect of IRS nonenforcement, Zelenak shines a much needed light on the topic. The essay, and the topic generally, should garner the attention of tax scholars, as well as scholars of enforcement discretion more generally.
Like other administrative agencies as well as prosecutors, the IRS has to make decisions all the time about when not to enforce the tax law. These decisions raise important questions about the legitimacy of different types of decisions not to enforce the tax law. For instance: Is it more or less legitimate for the IRS to decide not to enforce the law through a clear, customary deviation, or through a more opaque policy? If the IRS is somehow curtailed in its ability to use customary deviations, what alternatives might it use and would these be better or worse? By raising questions about customary deviations, Zelenak’s essay provides a jumping off point for a broader examination of tax law nonenforcement. Continue reading "The IRS as Tax Law Nonenforcer"