Originally written Fall, 2010 [before the 2010 election]
More than any other movement in the last generation, the Tea Party movement seems motivated by ideology. It seems as if a mass of individuals has spontaneously rallied to the flag of less government, of Constitutional principles, of individual liberty and autonomy. If they can accomplish what they hope to accomplish, it will be a great public good.
That last sentence is a double entendre. It is true when “public good” is read as “public benefit,” but surprisingly it is also true when “public good” is used in its standard economic sense, where “good” is meant as in “goods for sale.”
Economists use “public good” to refer to goods, like national defense, said to exhibit the properties of non-excludability and non-rivalry. A good is non-excludable when, provided to one, it must be provided to all. A good is non-rivalrous when, provided to one, it is still available to be provided to others. Such goods, economists argue, tend to be underproduced in the market. Why spend time and effort producing a public good when consumers can obtain it without paying because they can’t be excluded?
Ironically, political activity to bring about less government is itself a public good—if successful, you benefit from less government even if you didn’t work to bring it about, and less government provided to one is provided to all. Therefore, economists expect underproduction of the good “less government.” Thus, per Jefferson, does government grow and liberty recede.
Yet there are episodes in American history—the Revolutionary period and the time of the original Tea Party, for example—where ideology trumped economic reasoning…where large numbers of people committed personal risk to bring about social benefits far beyond those they could internalize…where people offered their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. And in the modern Tea Party movement this may be happening again today.
Today’s Tea Party participants have been called “extremist” by current D. C. denizens, but is this true in a broad historical context? How does today’s movement compare to the actions of those responsible for the original Tea Party?
At that time, America was a collection of English colonies, and England was the most powerful empire on the planet. Like all empires, it thrived by fighting wars and collecting taxes. Thomas Paine, in his book Rights of Man, even argued that while it might seem that the government raised taxes to fight wars, it actually fought wars in order to raise taxes!
So it was not surprising that, in the mid-18th century, toward the end of the French and Indian War (1754-63)—England’s 4th war against France in 70 years—a gargantuan war debt led England to demand more revenue from the American colonists. Granted, such taxes were quite modest when compared to the taxes Americans pay today. But they were extensive. The Stamp Act of 1765 mandated the purchase and use of government stamps for various goods, services, and documents. Government stamps had to be attached to court actions, wills, contracts, leases, deeds, land grants, mortgages, insurance policies, ship clearings from port, pamphlets, newspapers, dice, playing cards, advertisements. Penalties for non-compliance were severe and imposed by an admiralty court without trial by jury.
How did the colonists respond? Did they hold rallies, peacefully petitioning their governing officials for relief, as the modern Tea Partiers do? No. Their response was implacable resistance. Violent mobs burned the homes of judges and tax collectors attempting to enforce the law. Government officials were hung in effigy. The Royal Governor of Massachusetts was forced to flee the colony. England had to repeal the unenforceable Stamp Act the same year it was passed. Five years later, in 1670, it gave up collecting the equally unenforceable Townsend Duties, save, ominously, the duty on tea…
The act and duties were unenforceable because the colonists refused to pay them. No one in the current Tea Party movement is calling for mass refusal to fill out income tax forms; no one is calling for businessmen to perform a “Vivian Kellems” and refuse to collect withholding taxes. So who is being extreme?
The duty on tea, a remnant of the Townsend efforts, when combined when England’s allowing the East Indian Company to ship directly to the colonies—bypassing the English middlemen—actually led to a lowering of the price Americans paid for tea. Yet there was widespread opposition, based on concerns that if they allowed this tax, there would be no stopping future taxes. That is to say, an ideological argument. Meanwhile, the taxes today’s Tea Party members oppose expanding are an order of magnitude more than those opposed by their ideological ancestors; but no one is calling to reduce the tax burden to what King George III wanted to impose on the colonists. Who is extreme?
The reason for the original Tea Party—the illegal dumping of tea from a ship in Boston Harbor before the government made good its threat to remove the tea from the ship and forcefully collect the tax—is because the English government pressed the issue. At that period in American history, the more common way of avoiding such taxes was simple: smuggling. The American colonists were widespread scofflaws, routinely flouting taxes by simply not paying them or collecting them. Today, many in the Tea Party movement oppose growing economic regulations and confiscatory taxation, but unlike those in Peter Zenger’s time or those Americans who refused to find guilty any who worked on the Underground Railroad, smuggling black slaves to freedom in defiance of the law, no one today is urging widespread jury nullification as the solution to stifling regulation and unjust laws. Again, who are the extremists?
Today’s Tea Party movement seeks less government, but typically makes an exception for “defense,” even as America’s global empire fights two overseas wars and has garrisoned permanent troops in South Korea for 60 years. Today, the U. S. military budget constitutes about 50% of military spending for the entire planet. But even while the US spends as much on war preparation as the rest of the world combined, many in the Tea Party movement, interested in cutting the federal budget overall, still see the military budget as sacrosanct. Meanwhile, it was a common concern at the time of the original Tea Party that England wanted to impose a “standing army” on the colonists. A major justification in England for taxing the colonists was that the revenue was needed to pay for the English Redcoats sent to defend them. But the Americans of the time not only didn’t want the taxes, they didn’t want the troops, which many saw as an effort to awe and subdue them. A major reason for the 2nd amendment, recognized in 2008 by the Supreme Court’s Heller decision as a fundamental individual right, was to have militias composed of “the people” as a means of defense rather than impose a standing army. Yet the current Tea Party movement doesn’t even want to cut the military, let alone disband it. Extremism should be made of sterner stuff.
Today, our ruling class in Washington thinks even the mere suggestion that anything passed by Congress might be unconstitutional is evidence of extremism, even if the claim comes from a graduate of Yale Law School like Joe Miller of Alaska…even if, as is increasingly the case, it comes from judges on the federal appellate bench evaluating Obamacare. When former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was questioned during the 2010 campaign about the constitutionality of Obamacare, her response was “are you kidding?” This from a woman who as a precondition of her job has sworn to support the Constitution—one might think such a pledge would involve taking claims of unconstitutionality with at least some seriousness and decorum. Yet many Americans at the time of the original Tea Party—radicals like Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson—were loath to ratify the Constitution, a document today’s Tea Partiers view as sacred writing. Many Americans at the time of the original Tea Party saw it instead as an effort to centralize power, creating a more powerful national government than allowed by the Articles of Confederation.
So on issues as diverse as veneration of the Constitution, support of the military, civil disobedience, and willingness to use force to defend one’s rights, when compared to those colonists who dumped tea in Boston Harbor, who stood up to the most powerful empire in the world, it seems clear that today’s Tea Party movement is not too extreme. To bring about the change they desire, it may not yet be extreme enough.