Decision Day: the Tea Party, Strategy and Principle

In the career of any holder of public office, as in the life of any man, a decision begins to form about him the moment that he decides to stand for something. It is a decision as to whom he has chosen to be, the values he has chosen to uphold, and the depth of his convictions. The beauty of this process is: the decision is entirely his. The hardship of this process is: the decision is entirely his, and there is no struggle so great as that of a man who holds consciously, unyieldingly, comprehensively, to a set of beliefs. The same can be said of a movement.
A decision began to form some eight months ago when the Tea Party took to Congress. For a movement that based itself on a no-nonsense platform that set aside social issues to focus on removing the government’s hand from our pockets and reconstituting it upon those exercises necessary and proper to it, this summer’s budgetary and debt ceiling crises will be reviewed as having played a significant role in shaping that decision. What, then, do they portend? To be sure, from the Ryan Plan to “Cut, Cap, and Balance”, no Tea Party action or legislation has been met with universal public approval or gone without significant controversy (deserved or not, as the Ryan Plan didn’t actually cut much of anything). They have been labeled as “heartless” and “mean-spirited” by some, by others a return to true virtue and American ideals. In terms of tangible results, they have originated no grand legislation that has yet passed. Their victories have been, as so many in government are, not through the origination of policy, but through its molding. Who, ten years ago, could have imagined a contingent of small-government advocates so united and so adamant as to back even statists such as Harry Reid into a corner so tight that his own proposed bill provides for no new revenues from taxes? Their push for a balanced budget amendment through this latest crisis, for years considered an unattainable dream, by the end seemed almost uncontroversial (with the final legislation providing for serious debate and voting on the issue to come). They have definitively shifted the center to the right. Whether it remains there, moves ever further, or retracts, depends largely upon their actions to come.
Politically speaking, what is crucial going forward will be the Tea Party’s recognition of the nature of the victories that it can expect for some time to come. They will not be the wholesale conquest of hearts and minds and an arrival at reason by all interested parties. Such things take time and cultural changes on a very foundational level. Rather, their successes will be much like the one we have just witnessed in the debt ceiling crisis— and do not be dismayed, as, in the context of history, it was certainly a success, if an imperfect one. If they remain true to the course and are wisely led, taking every inch given to them but knowing when they have won and not to forsake attainable progress for the pursuit of that which, in light of other political groups’ shortsightedness, may be currently impossible, then this will only be the first of many gradual victories. After all, while the American Revolution may have been fought in a few years’ time, it would not have been possible but for the Enlightenment— an intellectual movement that had, at that time, been growing for roughly a century. Let it be known: I am no Burkian, no defender of the status-quo or advocate for the slow and meticulous change that keeps tenured elites comfortable at the expense of principles, but, as Thomas Sowell so astutely put it recently, “The most basic fact of life is that we can make our choices only among the alternatives actually available. It is not idealism to ignore the limits of one’s power. Nor is it selling out one’s principles to recognize those limits at a given time and place, and get the best deal possible under those conditions.” Even Ayn Rand, as principled an individual as one could aspire to observe, voted for Richard Nixon as an act of self-defense against the possibility of John F. Kennedy’s becoming president.
That being said, while they must learn this process of gradual victory, they must retain the conviction that its slow pace should be attributable solely to the unwillingness and inability of others to come to reason, and not because of a readiness to compromise fundamental principles on their part. Some will see these two points— their acceptance of gradual, partial victories and an unwillingness to compromise their ideals— as being contradictory. This would be in error. Quite to the contrary, one point is a strategic dictum, where the other is a philosophical imperative. Just as a rational man must pursue his own best interest as considered within the context of his own life, so a legislator must bring the same farsightedness to the realization of his political goals. Thus is the nature of realistic idealism, or, the maintenance and pursuit of principles within the context of available alternatives. As Ayn Rand wrote in her profound essay “The Cult of Moral Grayness”, “The basic error… consists of forgetting that morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice— which means: forgetting the difference between ‘unable’ and ‘unwilling’.”
It must be remembered that the power of statism is the power of force— to mandate obligations to his neighbor upon the unwilling, in order to secure his neighbor‘s vote and the subservience of both. When, in such instances as this, force is introduced into the equation, no man can expect recourse to reason. When government is permitted to indebt itself without limitation and to tax its citizens to pay for its misdeeds, who can expect reason from a debate over whether that debt should equal 100% of GDP or be capped at 90%? When one consents to being looted, one cannot pick and choose afterward what is to be kept and what can be taken. Still, I am of the belief that, in time, with commitment and moral consistency, the victories need not be so piecemeal as they are today. Those in congress who assert their belief in the primacy of individual rights must, in times such as these, be ruthless and unyielding. At the negotiating table, they must, as the chant goes, give nothing and take from them everything. They must remember that they are fighting not for a reversion to the now-idealized 1980s under Reagan and Bush, but for the undoing of a century of injustice perpetrated against the individual under the reigns of collectivism. As conservatives of the past too readily sacrificed principles for the achievement of (unprincipled) results, so this new breed must not sacrifice results for the chance to profess an ideal that is, in the current political climate, unattainable. Above all, they must remain devoted and optimistic in their efforts, for reason is on the side of the advocates of small government and, so long as they remain vigilant and adhere to that reason, I remain convicted that the American people are on a steady course toward the light of truth.
All of this is not to suggest that there are not faults to be found in the philosophical foundations of the Tea Party. To the contrary, it would seem that they have yet to fully realize the meaning of many of the principles which they advocate— that is, they often recognize the “what” if not the “why” of an issue. This reticence-toward or disinterest-in explicitly verbalizing the moral reasons for their policies may, as it invariably has with past political movements, undermine their own ambitions and lead them down contradictory or self-destructive paths— a fate that may be detrimental not only to their own ranks, but also to the perceptions of small-government advocates and defenders of individualism across the board, Tea Party or not. To avoid such a disastrous fate, the Tea Party must, as we have come to refer to it in this publication, scale the political Y-axis from the level of concrete particulars to philosophical principles, for it is here that they hold their firmest footing and their adversaries quickly lose legitimacy. They must firmly and openly establish the standard of the good as being the security and well-being of the lives of individual American citizens. This process begins with the coalition’s leadership making an assertive stand, broaching the subject of entitlement programs and challenging the collectivist morality at their foundations— not haggling over what percentage of our budget should be devoted to social security, but debating whether a system is just which mandates private citizens to follow a pre-determined spending pattern across their lifespan, regardless of their own desires. Not simply working to overturn Obamacare, but condemning it as an affront to the principle that each man has a right to the products of his own labor and that government must not endeavor to remove them from him for the sake of another— that we are not born into this world indebted to our neighbor, that we are not our brother’s keeper. Toward the endorsement of any policy to the contrary, as always, the burden of proof is on their opponents.
Understanding that, to many, the various ideas which I have endorsed here will seem mutually exclusive, I will condense them into a single, summative statement for clarity‘s sake: Those individuals serving in congress who wish to further the ideals of small government, freedom, and capitalism must explicitly advocate a political philosophy of individual rights, defending all that that entails, and must pursue the realization of those ideals through a strategy which does not, in a desperate hope for the perfect bill, forsake the gradual concessions made by their adversaries. The current condition of our mixed economy was not arrived at in a day, nor by one fell swoop, but through a prolonged series of statist victories: antitrust, the New Deal, the Great Society. The ultimate victory of reason and limited government will likely be achieved along much of the same terms. Until then, the Tea Party congressmen and senators must remember that it is not violating one’s principles to play smart, strategic politics toward the long-term realization of one’s ends.


6 thoughts on “Decision Day: the Tea Party, Strategy and Principle

  1. Do you live in a vacuum? Societies and man advanced by working cooperatively together- the skill set that I have may not be the same as yours. Saying that we “are not our brother’s keeper” goes against all christian precepts that I have learned. So , you would build your own roads, own schools, power plants, etc. When your relatives, parents, children, etc or even yourself lose their job or have a catastrophic medical emergency, by your principles there should be no unemployment, workers comp, food stamps, public schools,social security to help you survive or medical care unless you can pay for it. Until those who espouse these beliefs of the Tea Party actually live these beliefs – that is, refuse to take social security, unemployment, food stamps, workers comp, and expect to be turned away at the ER when having a life threatening medical issue because they can’t pay for it (no bitching allowed – no it ought to be a right talk) then and only then will I believe they are serious. I would hate to be their dependant/relative, as according to their principles it would be “you’re on your own, kid”. I don’t want to live in THAT country.

  2. Despite the somewhat inflamatory nature of this comment, I do believe that underlying it are a few objections worthy of response— if more for their rate of recurrence than their validity. I will thus briefly respond to its component statements individually:

    “Do you live in a vacuum?”


    “Societies and man advanced by working cooperatively together- the skill set that I have may not be the same as yours.”

    Agreed wholeheartedly. This is the foundation of commercial society, as recognized by Adam Smith, which has made all of organized human progress possible. Nothing that I have ever said contradicts this principle. I can only infer that your observation of this fact is intended as a refutation of my advocacy of individualism and of a society not burdened by the yoke of a welfare state. This would be in error. What Smith also recognized, you see, was that this principle of comparative advantage was solved naturally by market forces and required no coercion by government to function. As such, the first century of this country’s history, when it most closely followed Smith’s vision, adhered to the principles of a truly capitalist society, and recognized individual rights, it was the scene of the single most rapid increase in the quality of the average human life in the history of humankind. Since then, major welfare-state initiatives in this country have typically been brought about from an argument not that vital requirements were not being met by its citizens, but that individuals had a moral responsibility to provide them for others— and, furthermore, as these programs were being financed through tax dollars, that if citizens did not give charitably, that they could be imprisoned. Hardly benevolence. For example, in the debates in the 1970s over the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, not a single congressman was able to claim that American citizens were not receiving adequate medical care. The argument made was that they were receiving it by the voluntary charity of doctors and that this was demeaning and embarrassing. What was proposed instead was a system by which all Americans were required under threat of force to pay for their treatment, a circumstance which was meant to make the recipients feel better about the source of their benefits. Without going into the total economic failure which these programs amounted to even within the first five years of their enactment, the moral principle which is at their foundation is an abnegation of the individual rights which have formed the basis of this nation’s government since its founding.

    “Saying that we ‘are not our brother’s keeper’ goes against all christian precepts that I have learned.”

    I have not suggested the renunciation of the virtues of benevolence, generosity, compassion, or kindness which any moral individual, religious or secular, can agree upon. However, as I elucidated to some extent in my previous response, government is incapable of properly enacting these virtues. I will explain. What makes government unique among all human institutions? It is the monopoly on the use of force. So long as that force is utilized in an exclusively retaliatory manner toward the physical security of its constituents and the maintenance of law and order, government retains its proper moral foundation. When government utilizes that force to remove the products of one man’s labor in order to give it to another, it both violates its designated purpose and abandons any claim to morality. I think that any Christian would agree that taking a man’s living by force is wrong, even if you intend to use his wealth toward benevolent purposes later.

    “So , you would build your own roads, own schools, power plants, etc. When your relatives, parents, children, etc or even yourself lose their job or have a catastrophic medical emergency, by your principles there should be no unemployment, workers comp, food stamps, public schools,social security to help you survive or medical care unless you can pay for it.”

    This is a very broad topic, the various points and nuances of which I don’t intend to go into here. Each of these issues could receive (and, in many other publications, have received) their own full treatment spanning large-scale essays and whole books. Suffice it to say that there are a myriad of means which have been conceived and, in some cases, implemented to solve these needs privately and at low cost, not to mention without the burden of taxes weighing them down. There are a vast number of free-market theorists who have devised solutions to these issues that respect individual rights. The fact that they are so rarely implemented has more to do with the government’s crowding-out of private initiatives in many areas and its outright legal monopoly in others.

    “Until those who espouse these beliefs of the Tea Party actually live these beliefs – that is, refuse to take social security, unemployment, food stamps, workers comp, and expect to be turned away at the ER when having a life threatening medical issue because they can’t pay for it (no bitching allowed – no it ought to be a right talk) then and only then will I believe they are serious.”

    This is a common intellectual error committed by critics of small-government advocates. I have often heard it levelled against Ayn Rand for receiving social security or against Milton Friedman for airing “Free to Choose” on PBS. Their argument, when fully fleshed out with all of the particulars elucidated, amounts to this: “Free-market advocates have their money taken from them by the force of government against their will. It is thus hypocritical of them to receive, in return, any of that wealth back through the programs that they were forced to pay for.” The errors in this reasoning are blatant. As both of the aforementioned individuals explained, they did not endorse either social security or public access television, respectively. However, once government established the conditions under which they had only the choices of paying for them or going to prison, they chose their freedom. They also recognized that, once they had been made to pay for those programs, they had every right to try to get back as much as they possibly could of the wealth that was rightfully theirs. Doing so in no way entails an endorsement of that system.

    While these responses are not exhaustive, I believe that they briefly touch upon some common fallacies at work in the arguments against the politics of individualism.

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