(May 29) Taxes. They have the power to promote and the power to destroy. The manipulation of the tax code is a national pastime, played by more people than who watch baseball. Each change in the massive code makes it more complicated. A 21-year-old college woman with an evening job and a few inherited stocks or mutual funds needs a tax preparer to do her taxes. There is something wrong with that picture.

People don’t mind paying taxes if they think the system is fair and is not too punitive. When all the taxes — federal, state and local — are added to fees and licenses, the price tag for many people approaches 40%. That’s too much. Work and enterprise suffer if the tax collector’s share gets too big.

Fairness is a big issue. Lawmakers can and do play favorites. They can and do change the rules in the middle of the game. Some years back the tax laws allowed for investments in limited partnerships in everything from citrus groves to cattle feedlots to wildcat oil wells. The investor was a passive participant who didn’t know where his orange trees were or which cattle were his. The advantage was in tax losses against gains, with some hope for big future profits.

This was probably bad tax policy. It encouraged overproduction. It put lawyers and doctors and car dealers in competition with real farmers and ranchers. Then Congress changed the law to virtually wipe away the tax benefits of the passive investments.

So here was unfairness squared. First it was unfair to permit these kinds of investments. Then it was unfair to pull the rug out from investors who had invested in good faith. People lost their investments — and many sold out for 10 cents on the dollar — if they could sell at all.

The tax code gives politicians great power. They can promote whole industries or hold them back. They can favor one group over another. The politico can pass out exemptions, breaks, rebates, refunds, deductions, incentives, tax forgiveness. It is no wonder we fought a Revolutionary War over taxes.

Someone has rightly pointed out that there might be another revolution except for the tax withholding from paychecks. That way the taxes are automatically taken out. There is always the hope of a refund at the end of the fiscal year, which many people think is a windfall instead of a rip-off. If the money they overpaid had been invested it would return 5% to 10%. They would get a bonus instead of a refund of their own deflated tax overpayments.

Again, it is the unfairness of the system that rankles. Only in our case, we elected this King George, so we are ultimately to blame.

The estate tax, which may or may not be dead, leads to the strange situation where people literally give money away to beat the inheritance tax.

In other cases they can’t pass on a business, a farm, a restaurant without fear of the deadly death tax destroying their life’s work. Even some minority organizations have attacked the death tax because just as minorities begin to accumulate some wealth the tax code threatens to take it away.

It’s the accumulation of excess wealth beyond day-to-day needs that builds communities. Poor communities need to build wealth and income.

The tax code is enforced by fear, plain and simple. The Internal Revenue Service has great power. It got it from elected officials, or it accrued power through the rule-making process. The IRS has the power to promulgate rules dealing with the tax code. Congress is reluctant to ride too close a herd on the IRS. After all, that’s where the money comes from. A politician without tax money is like a drunk without booze — weak and shaky.

The power is great. Often that power is exercised responsibly. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes how the power is used is up to the whim of the regulator. It is not wise to provoke an IRS vendetta against you. As someone said, “The feds have the power, including nukes.”

The other day the House Ways and Means Committee, the tax committee chaired by that good California friend of agriculture, Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican, had a hearing about churches and politics. It was about whether churches can endorse political candidates without losing tax-exempt status. We learn that the IRS could send operatives into churches with notebooks to take down what preachers say to make sure they don’t step over the line and become too political.

The IRS is not doing that, mainly because the bureaucrat in charge of tax exempt groups has no stomach for it.

Someone else might have the stomach for it, which gives rise to the image of the king sending his minions into the cathedral to write down what the bishop is saying. That once happened in England, and the bishop, Thomas Beckett, was made a saint after the king had him killed.

The Bush administration came into office calling for lower taxes and a fairer tax code, but events overtook Bush. Government is growing again and centralizing. Don’t look for the tax code to become simple or fair anytime soon.

This writer lives in the Virginia back yard of George Washington and George Mason, the true father of the Bill of Rights. There are two things the two Georges didn’t want: an all-powerful tax collector, and America to become some new imperial power.