Charles Littlejohn, the corrupt IRS contractor who leaked thousands of confidential tax records to the New York Times and ProPublica, has received the maximum available sentence under law, which is five years in prison. It is a pity there wasn’t a heavier sentence available. In a self-respecting society that valued its institutions, an abuse of the public trust such as Littlejohn’s would be met with the kind of unyielding rigor and energy that we currently waste on marijuana smugglers and little old ladies who sometimes stab a guy to death with a sword cane in a bar fight in suburban Philadelphia.
(I used to live nearly on top of—and, if we’re being totally honest, effectively inside—that pub, which was called Annie’s at the time.)
I’m not saying we should go easy on little old ladies’ sword-cane homicides, not by any means—but: a homicide like the one mentioned above is basically a private offense, in the sense that it doesn’t implicate any very important public issue other than the general public interest in good order and the long-cherished but never-to-be-realized dream of homicide-free Irish pubs in the general vicinity of Philadelphia. Abusing the vast investigatory powers entrusted to the IRS is, from a public point of view, a much more consequential matter, as are things like Medicare fraud and enticing goober police chiefs into your scheme to make an end-run around federal machine-gun regulations.
A murder or an assault hurts one person, with rippling effects on his or her family and community. These are serious matters. But crimes that corrupt our institutions not only hurt the people who are directly involved but also undermine our ability to use those institutions to deal with those more ordinary kinds of crime with private victims. That’s why corrupt cops and politicians, the January 6 insurrectionists, and the lawyers who tried to help Donald Trump give some phony-baloney legal color to his attempted coup d’état ought, in my mind, to be punished a lot more harshly than some idjit trying to float a few kilos of Bolivian marching powder into Miami on a speedboat.