A fine summer day it was, and as I walked down my quiet country road I smugly congratulated myself for being unafraid of any bills that might lie waiting in the darkness of the rusty old mailbox.  I made a mental note to get a new one, perhaps an elaborate one.  Now, where would I find a really vintage piece—not a mere mailbox, but a letterbox?  The wind rustled the eucalyptus, and the sound was reassuring.  The tree reared majestically above the house, its leaves glinting like silver coins in the late afternoon sun.  Ah, prosperity!

The mail was suspiciously thick, and even before I disentangled the daily missives from Pottery Barn from offers of Instant Credit, I felt its thickness, its heft, beneath the pile of junk.

Emblazoned with the symbol of an eagle improbably holding scales of justice in its needle-sharp beak, and half a laurel wreath—the ancient symbol of victory—the envelope on the bottom looked like it contained a substantial missive.

I sat down on the curb and ripped it open.  The first page contained this ominous warning in reverse-white-on-black 18-point type: You Must Return the Response Form by August 19, 2012.

Response to what? I wondered, fearing the answer—which came soon enough.

“Why are you getting this notice?” the letter went on, at once chatty and sinister.  “The income and payment information we have . . . does not match entries on your 2010 Form 1040.  If this information is correct, you will owe . . . ”


“. . . $101,761.”

I surprised myself by remaining utterly calm, even indifferent.  Obviously a mistake, I thought.  Or had the tax rate gone up to 200 percent of personal income that year without me and H&R Block noticing it?

I flipped through the papers, past a page of threats of penalties upon failure to meet the deadline for payment—less than a month—and advice on what to do if you want to file bankruptcy.  I flipped past the “Response Form,” which basically gives you three options: confess to everything, confess to some things, or throw yourself on the mercy of the court.  It wasn’t until page five that I arrived at the “Explanation Section,” which listed three items I had supposedly failed to report: $10 from my bank, which I presume is interest on my perpetually shrinking account, and $55 in royalties from one of my more obscure books.  I had to turn the page over to get to the big item: the sale of my house.

Perhaps, I thought, I’ve accidentally slipped into an alternate universe, a world where I never lugged all those documents to my accountant: the closing papers, the title work, the dozens of receipts for the extensive repairs.  It took two trips to deliver the lot.  But hey, now that I’ve landed in Bizarro World—where up is down, and the innocent are guilty—perhaps none of that matters any longer.

It was a moment where ideology and ordinary life—my life—converged, and the result was a lightning flash of illumination.  In all the years I’ve been active in the libertarian movement—roughly since 1964 or so—the threat of overweening state power against which I inveighed with such vigor had always remained an abstraction.  In my numerous polemics targeting the state as the source of all our problems, I had summoned countless examples of how other people had been victimized by some bureaucratic whim cooked up in Washington, some mindless edict that had ruined their lives.  Now I was suddenly the subject of this familiar narrative.

That’s when the panic set in.

After a day of phone calls to H&R Block, and commiserating conversations with friends, I went to sleep early, exhausted—and woke at dawn to the certainty that I wasn’t going to live like this.  I would call the IRS myself, and get to the bottom of it.

After playing guessing games with their automated answering system, which seeks to avoid giving callers the option to hear a human voice, I finally managed to reach an actual person.  After I identified myself, she asked me what my question was.  I explained about the trove of documents I had dutifully delivered to Higgins, my excellent accountant at H&R Block, who has done my taxes since forever, and how it took two trips.

I could hear a humming in the background, and occasionally a loud voice would rise above the human din.  How many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of similar interrogations were going on at this very moment?  “You owe $513,” I heard one hard-voiced female say.  Gee, lucky guy, I thought.

Without relating the back-and-forth in excruciating detail, suffice it to say I was put on hold for enough time to let me contemplate my own mortality.  Upon her return, the tone changed perceptibly; she was less formal, more relaxed.  I tried to imagine the face of the woman who was deciding my fate, and I could see—in my mind’s eye—that she was smiling, as if at some private joke.  OK, she said (and, to me, this signaled we were coming to the definitive moment, the Dies Irae, so to speak), how much did I buy my house for, what did I sell it for—and did I make any gains?  I gave her the figures, answered no to the third question, and soon, I was back on hold.

I sat there planning my life, postbankruptcy: We would have to sell our beloved house and move to a rental, but even that sacrifice would not pay the bill in full.  I’d have to make payments, and as I was calculating how many years it would take me, the agent came back on the line.  “OK, we’re going to issue you a closure letter . . . ”

I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence.  You’ve heard stories about how somebody placed in front of a firing squad is facing the line of raised guns, when the reprieve comes through at the very last moment.  What he experiences rewards the player of roulette in the Russian style who escapes the bullet one more time, who does it because of the “peak experience” (to use Maslow’s phrase) that follows.

A friend of mine remarked that “We’re sending you a closure letter” is the U.S. government’s way of saying “we totally screwed up, and we’re sorry,” but I wonder.  Higgins thinks they were retroactively enforcing some recently passed revision of the rules about how real-estate sales are reported on the tax form.  As for me, I tend to go with the Bizarro World interdimensional slip-up theory, but in one darker moment I wondered if it had something to do with my job, which is, after all, editorial director of a website devoted to opposing the American Empire.

Nah, I thought, I’m not that important.  It could have been a simple mistake, but there is a darker explanation, and it is the rise of anarchotyranny, as Sam Francis used to call it:

What we have in this country today, then, is both anarchy (the failure of the state to enforce the laws) and, at the same time, tyranny—the enforcement of laws by the state for oppressive purposes; the criminalization of the law-abiding and innocent.

Imagine our anarchotyrants have programmed the IRS computer to generate dunning letters demanding six figures to randomly selected taxpayers.  What better way to remind Americans who their masters are?

I stand reminded.