PJ sent me a link to a piece by J.M. Bernstein about the tea party movement. The title, "The Very Angry Tea Party," gives an idea as to his take. The central flaw with his article, as with many similar articles written on this subject, is that it assumes that the tea partiers must have something which unites them. In a sense this is true; every movement must have some common thread or it will divide into two or more movements. But, so far as I can tell, the only thing that unites the tea party is a sometimes vague and often contradictory notion that government has gotten too big and must be reduced in size. There is certainly anger, but Bernstein downplays the extent to which this may be justified, while at the same time he sees little else in the movement. This is a mistake because, whether or not we support its goals--which remain ill defined--we would do well to understand it.
As readers of the blog well know, I'm an ardent supporter of Ron Paul. As a result, I've been aware of the tea party movement for a very long time. Like the snobbish indie rocker, I was into tea parties before they were cool--only I was never really into them. I supported Paul's campaign to educate the American people about the importance of liberty, sound money and a humble foreign policy, but meet up groups and political rallies aren't my cup of--well, you know. I prefer to read economic treatises and bore my friends with discussions of Austrian business cycle theory.
Two things surprised me about the tea party: first, that they became a big deal; second, that the movement has staying power. Somewhere between the first and the second surprise something happened: the establishment caught on and tried to join the movement. Suddenly, Sean Hannity was pimping for the partiers. This helped raise visibility, but it hurt the movement in the long run. Sean does a grand job of firing up the base about the evil of the democratic party, which is a laudable goal. But he's AWOL when it comes to abuses on behalf of his beloved republicans. He might say some nasty things about Arlen Specter, but Bush can grow government as much as he wants without earning a rebuke from Sean. In other words, Hannity is a partisan hack.
Hannity's tea party is sometimes the one Bernstein discusses:
When it comes to the Tea Party’s concrete policy proposals, things get fuzzier and more contradictory: keep the government out of health care, but leave Medicare alone; balance the budget, but don’t raise taxes; let individuals take care of themselves, but leave Social Security alone.
It's fair to point out the contradictions here because they're rather noticeable. On the other hand, it's nothing new, either. As I once wrote: "[T]he folly of conservatism lies in its defensive nature; it can mitigate the damage done by the forces of liberalism, but it can never prevent their longterm success." Hannity's tea party is fighting against things he will be supporting in twenty years.
I use Hannity to denote the faction of the tea party with which I am in least sympathy, but Palin is the actual leader. As this poll demonstrates, tea partiers are split between Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. Moreover, despite the movement they ostensibly share, supporters of one are not likely to care for the other. This is an important aspect of the movement--one which gets too little attention.
Naturally, I side with the Paul people. I do so for two main reasons. First, Paul advocates a sensible and moral foreign policy. While Palin and company want government to be small, they want defense to be huge. This is problematic because the armed forces are more dangerous to life and liberty than any other aspect of the government--of which, I hesitate to remind Palin, defense surely is a part. It's absurd, too, because the annals of history fail to recommend a single example of an empire--such as we possess--with an insignificant bureaucracy. You want a big army, you have to take the big bureaucracy.
The second reason I side with Paul is that his understanding of the nature of government is so much more complete and consistent. Human beings are capable of exchanging goods and services for mutual benefit. Such exchanges are inherently just because they are voluntary. Contrariwise, the State is force. Its subjects are not allowed to opt out voluntarily; at most, they may move to another State. Instead, they must fight in its wars, or at least pay for them. They must use its currency--which is constantly being debased so as to siphon funds to State coffers. They must give up a large percentage of their income, so as to pay for services they may or may not wish to receive. As the great Ludwig von Mises observed, "Government is essentially the negation of liberty." Hence libertarians do what we can to resist it.
In discussing this resistance, Bernstein's piece insinuates that the tea partiers may become violent:
In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins’ fantasy of total freedom, “a fury of destruction”? There is indeed something not just disturbing, but frightening, in the anger of the Tea Party.
I cannot speak for the Palin crowd, but the Paulians are not a violent bunch. Philosophically, the opposition to government stems from its opposition to force. To use the State's means against it would be to acknowledge that aggressive force has a place in society, something the libertarian rejects. Instead, we patiently bide our time, educating those among us who are open to the message of liberty. We will also be ready to offer a peaceful alternative when the State strikes out violently against those who are reluctant to abide by its might.
Bernstein has one other point that he offers which I wish to address:
My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.
This is correct, but it is also misleading. We are dependent because the government compels us to be. We use its currency, and suffer inflation because of it. We must work to pay for two senseless, losing wars. We thus have less money to feed our families, and with which we may strengthen non-compulsory institutions, none of which is more important than the family itself.
Bernstein hints that the tea party may be revolutionary. It is far more likely that it will utterly fail to do much of anything. The American people don't actually hate government. Sure, some of us do, but we're idiosyncratic. The success of Ron Paul's End the Fed notwithstanding, obsessions with monetary policy are signs that you may belong to the remnant of which Albert Jay Nock wrote. Most people will tolerate the government until it oversteps its bounds to the point where the deleterious consequences of governmental interference can no longer be ignored.
This is what we've witnessed recently, and it's a point that we must not forget. Yes, conservatives like Hannity are hypocritical for supporting the State as long as their guy was running it. But this doesn't detract from the fact that the State violates our liberties with impunity, and is patently responsible for the impoverishment of millions of Americans.
Consider what has occurred in the last three or four years. Mainstream economists, pundits and politicians insisted that the economy was doing well. The Austrian school knew better of course. When it was no longer possible to pretend that there was a problem, both major presidential candidates helped transfer billions of dollars, enough money to pay off almost every mortgage in the country, to bail out rich bankers--who then took home huge bonuses. The same buffoons who didn't recognize the housing bubble insisted that the stimulus would fix the economy. They then used meaningless metrics to prove that the recession was over. This happened while unemployment continued to climb. Meanwhile, the State picked up the slack by hiring more people to interfere in the lives of free citizens. We also found out that private sector employees are suckers, who make far less than those who work for the State.
This had the tendency to make people angry. Should we be surprised? Instead of being concerned with the anger of the tea party, I think Bernstein should ask himself why he fails to share their emotions. It's ripping him off, too.