A Framework for Analyzing the Issues Raised by the Tea Party

James Voorhees 18 October 2010 The Tea Party movement has been characterized as many things, by its friends as well as its enemies. At its heart, though, is anger over the growth of government's role in American life. Tea Partiers see symptoms of this in the expansion of the laws and regulations that they must follow and in the increase in the amount of taxes that they must pay. This anger is not always expressed temperately. It runs too high. Nor are those in the Tea Party movement or aligned with it always consistent. The movement is too diffuse. Consequently, other issues get attached to the Tea Party name, at least by those outside the movement. Some, of these issues, like race and immigration, and some of the language used elicit knee-jerk hostility from those on the other side. But the Tea Party movement's basic issue the role of government is one that should be debated by the American polity. A consensus is needed a new one that we as Americans can live with. In truth, this issue is not a new one. It is perennial. It has also been central to American history from the time the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock. To that end, let me suggest a framework that we can use to address this. This framework outlined here will be abstract, the language, dispassionate. It is not meant to address the specific issues the Tea Party movement raises. It will not be useful if you want to simply dismiss the Tea Party movement as crazies or as mere proxies for the right-wing rich. You shouldn't. They aren't. The issues they raise affect us all; the Tea Party movement's point of view deserves to be taken seriously. We need to address the issues and engage the people. Beneath the rhetoric, beyond the hysteria, there may be common ground. What Is Government? Government is an elephant, one might say. Certainly the Tea Party movement sees it as clumsy and gargantuan. The movement and its allies view it as too big and too clumsy for the country's good. But it is also an elephant in the sense of the Chinese story of the blind wise men, each of whom touch a part of it and conclude that the whole is like that part the trunk, a tusk, the tail, the back. Of course, the elephant is all these things. And so we see the government as bureaucracy, as laws and regulations, as the 1

expression of the people's will, and dozens of other things besides. Many of these definitions can, indeed, included in any complete definition of what government is. Let me step back and offer another way of looking at government. A good place to begin is with the sociologist Weber. Government, he said, has a bureaucracy and a legal order. It alone has the legitimate right to use force.1 Government also claims binding authority over everyone within a particular geographic area. That is, if you live in California, the state government claims authority over you; if you live in the United States, the Federal government does. All four characteristics are important. Possession of the right to use force is essential. It backs up the last characteristic. That characteristic, the claim to binding authority, is the essential difference between the private and public in this context. You must do what the government says, whether or not you agree. No other part of society (aside from parents) makes that claim without implicitly calling on government's authority. They make rules; only the government makes law. What Should Society Care About? Each of us makes hundreds of decisions each day. Many we leave to habit, such as which side of the bed we climb out of in the morning. Many we leave to others family, friends, neighbors associates, organizations that touch our lives, the government. Those others, broadly speaking, are society. There are simply some matters in life that we need help wit, this raises two questions: What should society leave to us as individuals? What should society take to itself to manage? These are the broadest of questions. After all, society is everyone else and society has an interest in most of what we do. Even a decision not to brush your teeth may offend friends and family, that is, a small portion of society. But the truth is that while people might complain about such a decision,, society leaves most of what we do to us. We are free to make fools of ourselves. And we are free to do so in numerous ways. How Can Society Manage What It Cares About? But how does society 'manage' things? That is, 'society' may want people to make certain choices, certain decisions. It may want people to behave in certain ways.
1 Max Weber, Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, ed., Talcott Parsons. (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 156. Weber was describing the state rather than government. the two terms are used synonymously here.


If so, how does it make that happen? In the most general sense, society rewards what it wants and punishes what it does not. But who (or what) is it? can be divided into four parts, when looked at from wherever we stand. Three of these are: those around us, organizations we belong to, and drum roll, please government. Each of these three parts of society has different ways of deciding what it cares about and how it can reward or punish you. Government, of course, has laws, passed by legislators. These are executed by other parts of government, including bureaucrats. Regulation is one of their tools. Enforcers police, the armed forces, the tax man punish unwanted behavior. After all, they, collectively, have the legitimate right to use force. Rewards are issued by bureaucrats, that same tax man, and others. The organizations we belong to often manage just a small set of the things we do. But not always. We might, for example, join a church and follow its precepts in all aspects of our life. No matter: how much we give up to any private organization is a matter of choice. The organization will determine the rewards and punishments it can mete out. You can accept those rewards or punishments or leave the organization. It doesn't have the authority the right to make you stay. Those around us family, friends, neighbors, associates, strangers we encounter-operate much as organizations to, but much less formally. What they care about is often set by custom or tradition, both of which can change greatly over time. Rewards and punishments include smiles, hugs, and kind words; scowls, slaps, and insults. You can accept these, too, or leave. I said that there are four parts of society, but I've named only three. The fourth is more amorphous. In fact, it encompasses all of the above. This is all of us as separate, independent individuals. You might call it 'the mass of us.' This mass can be sliced or diced in different ways, according to the context. This is the part of society that defines us as voters, consumers or producers, workers or managers, buyers or sellers. How does this part of society decide what it cares about? How does it reward or punish? Everything this part of society does is the agglomeration of decisions by individuals. Those decisions affect and are affected by the group of people around us and the organizations we have joined. They are also affected by what government does. Indeed, much of what government does is designed to affect us en masse. Because we live in a democracy, this agglomeration of decisions also affects government, though which of the slices and dices affect it can be a matter of 3

contention. Many who support the Tea Party see government dominated by an elite they find alien; many who oppose it see it dominated by 'special interests' alien to them. What Does Society Care About? In 1919, society decided that it cared whether people drank. It passed Prohibition. In 1934 it decided otherwise and repealed it. Society no longer cared. At least it did not care enough to do anything about it. Of course, it was a little more complicated than that. Parts of American society have always cared. Those around Carrie Nation cared deeply about the consumption of alcohol before 1919. So did brewers and vintners. Those who lived in dry counties after Prohibition was repealed still cared about the consumption of alcohol. So do brewers and vintners. When measured by the laws enacted, the concerns that society has decided cannot be left to the individual have shown a more or less steady increase since sometime in the 19th century. In particular, as any Tea Party support can show, there can be little doubt that the concerns taken up by the Federal Government have increased. That trend, in fact, can be traced as far back as the Civil War. The expansion of the Federal government since FDR became president has been well documented. But the concerns of society have shrunk in some cases as well. Prohibition is one example. Blue laws that forbid activity on Sunday are another. Not long ago, one could not shop on a Sunday in many cities and states. In the last thirty years or so, that has changed. Now, for many, Sunday is now a shopping day like any other. Society, as a whole, no longer cares whether you limit your activities on the Christian Sabbath. Banking regulation is another example. The Glass-Steagal Act was passed during the Depression to limit the speculative activities of banks. Government acted to allay society's concern that the banks were playing too freely with their depositor's money. By 1999, that concern had passed. The act was effectively repealed in 1999 when the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Democratic president. The recent financial crisis has revived that concern and led, once again, to another act of Congress. These examples are designed to show simply that what our society, cares about, how much it cares about it, and which part of society care about it changes constantly. Much of what the Tea Party gets angry about has to with these changes. They see government, especially the Federal government, expanding the number of its concerns and taking up action on those concerns, taking over responsibilities that had been 4

left to other parts of society. There is truth to that perception. Whether government should have done that is a matter for argument. The actions of the Obama administration have been an extension of that trend. They have, therefore, been the particular focus of those, in the Tea Party and outside it, who see government action as harmful to the society within which we all live. The Health Care Bill, with its requirement that people buy insurance; the takeover of GM and Chrysler; the interventions in the financial industry are all extensions of the powers of the Federal government that the Tea Party movement questions. Can Government Do Anything Good? Even if could all agree on what the society should be concerned with, the question of which parts of society should act on those concerns would still arise. The Tea Party movement asserts that action on most concerns should be left to the private sector. So does most of the Republican Party. They will often argue that the free market can best determine how to manage society's concerns. They will usually put this argument in terms of efficacy. That is, if you want it done right, let the private sector do it, because the government can't do it effectively, cheaply, and for the benefit of all. Both the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party argue, with some justification, that Democrats tend to fall back on government, the Federal Government in particular, as the best means for managing society's concerns. Democrats might argue that government action can be cost-effective and that the private sector can't be counted on to act for the benefit of all. At bottom, the arguments of the two sides rest on opposing principles. One is the principle of the invisible hand: If everyone acts to further their own interests, the common good is served. This principle has been around at least since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It is the cornerstone of economic theory of all schools, whether Friedmanite or Keynesian. And it is central to the thinking of the Tea Party movement. The opposite principle is both older and newer than the invisible hand: If everyone acts to further their own interests, the common good is injured. Hobbes argued this principle at length in the 17th Century. He said that if 5

everyone acted without constraint, in their own interests, society would find that everyone would be at war literally--with everyone else. That made big government the Leviathan--necessary. A milder version, more relevant to the issues addressed here, dates from 1968, when Garrett Hardin discussed the tragedy of the commons.2 One of the examples he uses is the national parks. Many are beautiful, but if visited by everyone with no limits, much of that beauty would be lost. Some higher authority government, perhaps is needed to maintain a beauty that most of us would want to see maintained. Each of these principles is valid in part. Neither is completely valid. Either or both can be pertinent when figuring out how to address any of society's concerns. Whether private action benefits or harms the common good in fact depends on a number of things. Among these are the virtues and flaws of the part of society called upon to address the concern at issue. It also depends on which values society values most in that particular case. In Principle: Let the Private Sector Do It The principle of the invisible hand is at the heart of the free market system. Without it, that system could not work. With it, an economy can produce things efficiently, so that it can produce the best goods at the least price. The prosperity of this country is built on that principle, as Tea Party supporters will affirm. Efficiency is what the private economy excels at. In this, government cannot be its equal. After all, agencies live, not by the bottom line, but by the next appropriations bill. The private sector of the economy must profit to survive: firms that have no profits, die. This is something else the Tea Party movement knows well. Indeed, a number of conservatives, not just Tea Party supporters, dedicated to private enterprise, believe that a proper reaction to many of the economic problems of the last few years was simply to let firms die. Even goliaths like General Motors and Citibank. Another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called such deaths creative destruction. A firm like Polaroid can die, but its place will be taken by new ones that will take us into this future. This, too, is something the private sector does well and the public sector poorly. It is essential if economic progress is to be made. But

2 . Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, December 13, 1968. Found at: http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html 6

government has no effective, consistent means for choosing which firms should stay in business and which should not. The market free enterprise does. That means is the bottom line profit and loss, revealing the beneficent side of the invisible hand. The principle of the invisible hand assumes some things about the market. One essential assumption is that the market is competitive. An associated assumption is that there are no secrets about demand, supply, or price. This means that no firm can manipulate prices or supplies unfairly, to the detriment of other firms in its market or consumers (that part of the mass of us ). Each firm can eke out the profits it requires to the benefit of all. Under these conditions, the Gekko Corollary to the principle of the invisible hand becomes effective: Greed is good. In contrast, a monopoly guides itself. It needs no invisible hand. If profits fall, it can raise prices. Consumers have no option if they want or need that good or service. A monopoly can act as it will, with little regard to efficiency or to the concerns of society, unless those around all of us act together (an effort difficult to achieve, as numerous attempted boycotts have shown), or government acts. And, of course, a monopoly, too big to fail, at least in its own eyes, can wield influence on those, in government and out, who might try to constrain it. A spectrum of competition lies between a completely competitive market and a monopoly lies. The closer to monopoly a market gets, the less the principle of the invisible hand applies. It becomes more likely that we will see the tragedy of the commons. So, during the financial crisis the people of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Lehman Brothers, and the rest of the oligopoly that led the financial world, acted in accordance with the principle of the invisible hand. They may well have cited the Gekko Corollary. And the country the world faced disaster. To sum up, the private sector of the economy can do some things extremely well. And there are things that government dies much less well, and often poorly. But the private sector sometimes needs help. In Principle: Only Government Can Do It. There are things that government can do that the private sector cannot. After all, only the government has binding authority and the force available to make it stick. So where the principle of the invisible does not work, government can act. For example, it can do so with monopolies, as it does with power companies. It acted when bank's activities in the 1930s. In general, it can do so where the principle behind the tragedy of the commons is at work on a concern that society has expressed. And, in truth, no other part of society can. 7

That might sound simple. You know it's not. So does the Tea Party movement. Democrats and those further left on the political spectrum will complain about the influence of business monopolists and lesser folk and special interests of various kinds. Let's be fair. Republicans and and Tea Party supporters all make similar complaints about special interests. They find, as many of their political opponents do, that government's actions do not reflect the concerns of those around us, of the organizations that we have joined, or of our slices and dices of the mass of us. It leads to this question: How can you trust a government controlled by those who don't share your interests? This is a basic question behind much of the anger of the Tea Party movement. The government is not theirs, they feel. It has been taken over by those with different backgrounds, different values, different concerns. It is easy for those opposed to the Tea Party movement to dismiss this sentiment as a simplistic rejection of those who are different. But this sentiment is shared by many who reject what the Tea Party stands for. They don't feel the same anger, they don't complain about the same influences on government, but the sense that the government is beholden to someone else is widespread. Indeed, this lack of trust in government has been growing for decades. A study of public attitudes in 1991 under a Republican president showed that the public had many of the same complaints that the Tea Party movement and many of the rest of us are making today.3 The more things change.... If government does not concern itself with what we care about, if the people in charge of it do not share our values, if, indeed, they further their own interests to the detriment of the public good, what are we to do when the principle of the invisible hand does not apply? There are two choices. We can rely on those around us and the organizations we have joined. For concerns that affect just a few people, that can suffice. Some argue that in the past we, as a people, felt more connected with each other than we do now. So we were both willing and able to do more for our fellow citizens ourselves, without relying on the authority of government. If that were true, let us try to make it so again. But, even if that were true, the change involved, change in

3 The Harwood Group, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America (Dayton, OH: The Kettering Foundation, 1991).


culture, in our traditions and values, cannot come quickly and is not certain. The other choice is to change our government and how we interact with it. That is no easy task either. But it is what the Tea Party movement is trying to do. There are important differences between the Tea Party movement and its opponents on issues. Differences in how the movement and its opponents view the world may also be important. But there may more room for common ground than many recognize.


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