Tag: Tea Party

Are Libertarians Anti-Government?

The term “anti-government” is getting tossed around a lot these days, and used rather indiscriminately to describe libertarians, libertarian-ish Tea Partiers, hate groups, and violent individuals (not to mention opponents of specific leaders and regimes in countries around the world). That’s a pretty wide spectrum, and journalists and politicians ought to be more careful with their language. In the meantime, I’m republishing here a Cato Policy Report editorial that I published in 1998:

————–

For the past several years, especially since the Oklahoma City bombing, the national media have focused a lot of attention on “anti-government” extremists. Libertarians, who are critical of a great deal that government does, have unfortunately but perhaps understandably been tossed into the “anti-government” camp by many journalists.

There are two problems with this identification. The first and most obvious is that many of the so-called anti-government groups are racist or violent or both, and being identified with them verges on libel.

The second and ultimately more important problem is that libertarians are not, in any serious sense, “anti-government.” It’s understandable that journalists might refer to people who often criticize both incumbent officeholders and government programs as “anti-government,” but the term is misleading.

A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed.

Libertarians want people to be able to live peacefully together in civil society. Cooperation is better than coercion. Peaceful coexistence and voluntary cooperation require an institution to protect us from outside threats, deter or punish criminals, and settle the disputes that will inevitably arise among neighbors—a government, in short. Thus, to criticize a wide range of the activities undertaken by federal and state governments—from Social Security to drug prohibition to out-of-control taxation—is not to be “anti-government.” It is simply to insist that what we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions.

But if libertarians are not “anti-government,” then how do we describe the kind of government that libertarians support? One formulation found in the media is that “libertarians support weak government.” That has a certain appeal. But consider a prominent case of “weak government.” Numerous reports have told us recently about the weakness of the Russian government. Not only does it have trouble raising taxes and paying its still numerous employees, it has trouble deterring or punishing criminals. It is in fact too weak to carry out its legitimate functions. The Russian government is a failure on two counts: it is massive, clumsy, overextended, and virtually unconstrained in scope, yet too weak to perform its essential job. (Residents of many American cities may find that description a bit too close for comfort.)

Not “weak government,” then. How about “small government”? Lots of people, including many libertarians, like that phrase to describe libertarian views. And it has a certain plausibility. We rail against “big government,” so we must prefer small government, or “less government.” Of course, we wouldn’t want a government too small to deter military threats or apprehend criminals. And Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., offers us this comparison: “a dictatorship in which the government provides no social security, health, welfare or pension programs of any kind” and “levies relatively low taxes that go almost entirely toward the support of large military and secret police forces that regularly kill or jail people for their political or religious views” or “a democracy with open elections and full freedom of speech and religion [which] levies higher taxes than the dictatorship to support an extensive welfare state.”

“The first country might technically have a ‘smaller government,’” Dionne writes, “but it undoubtedly is not a free society. The second country would have a ‘bigger government,’ but it is indeed a free society.”

Now there are several problems with this comparison, not least Dionne’s apparent view that high taxes don’t limit the freedom of those forced to pay them. But our concern here is the term “smaller government.” Measured as a percentage of GDP or by the number of employees, the second government may well be larger than the first. Measured by its power and control over individuals and society, however, the first government is doubtless larger. Thus, as long as the term is properly understood, it’s reasonable for libertarians to endorse “smaller government.” But Dionne’s criticism should remind us that the term may not be well understood.

So if we’re not anti-government, and not really for weak or small government, how should we describe the libertarian position? To answer that question, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Libertarians generally support a government formed by the consent of the governed and designed to achieve certain limited purposes. Both the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution, and the challenge in any society is to keep government constrained and limited so that individuals can prosper and solve problems in a free and civil society.

Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government—limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

Stevens Retirement Ill-timed for Dems

The retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens at the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, and the coming nomination and confirmation process, will doubtless further complicate and delay the Obama administration’s already complicated agenda during this mid-term election year. And the timing cannot be good news for Democrats running for reelection, because the process will serve to highlight their understanding of the Constitution as a document authorizing all but unlimited government in a year in which, thanks to the Tea Party movement, the Constitution is likely to have a prominent place in reelection debates.

Regarding a replacement for Justice Stevens, the nominee will almost certainly come from the Democratic Party’s liberal ranks. As a result, the ideological complexion of the Court is not likely to change, since Justice Stevens, especially in recent years, has been the most reliable liberal vote on the Court, whether on abortion, campaign finance, gun rights, affirmative action, or several other hot-button issues. As the press reviews those decisions over the coming weeks and months, therefore, controversy over the Court will be in the air, adding to what already promises to be a very political year.

The Establishment Is Offended

Today Politico Arena asks:

Should Republican leaders be doing more to reign in the rhetoric?

My response:

One hesitates to weigh in on this mud-slinging for fear of getting muddy oneself.  But neither should commentary on Republican and tea-party reaction to Sunday’s House vote be left to the suddenly self-righteous Democratic left:  After all, it’s their appalling disregard for democratic principles and processes that gave rise to the weekend’s demonstrations and outbursts.  So a few points are in order, simply to put things in perspective.

First, let’s not leap to factual conclusions.  Last evening the Lehrer News Hour reported (along with Politico this morning) that Rep. Randy Neugebauer shouted “baby killer” as Rep. Bart Stupak was speaking Sunday night.  Yet NPR reported that Neugebauer actually shouted “It’s a baby killer” – referring to the bill, not to Stupak.  Neither version is acceptable, but there is a difference.  Likewise, claims about protesters’ taunts should be treated cautiously as well, especially since they’ve been denied, and as yet no footage has emerged to support them.  Yet we see here at the Arena this morning that Harvard’s Theda Skocpol is writing, without a shred of evidence, that ”Quite a few Republican public officials are even flirting with threats of violence against political figures they oppose.”  So let’s not pretend that the right has a corner on irresponsibility.

Second, even if the claims about protesters’ taunts prove to be true, how is that a warrant for condemning the entire tea-party movement, or the Republican party, as many on the left are doing?  No broad political movement can control its every “member.”  Yet we find people like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn saying that GOP leaders “ought to be ashamed of themselves for bringing these people here to Washington.”  Perhaps Rep. Clyburn has forgotten that we still have the right to protest.  That’s what the first tea party was about.  And let’s remember that George Washington had to wade into the “mob” from time to time to keep order.

And that brings me to a final point.  The symbolism of the Democratic left’s hostility to the “tea baggers” should not go unnoticed.  The tea party movement’s roots are in the American Revolution.  These ordinary Americans are protesting the Washington ”Establishment” – which presently is the Democratic juggernaut – much as American Patriots were protesting the oppressive British Establishment that was “eating out their substance” with “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”  The Democratic left should think long and hard about those parallels.  The times they are a-changin’.

Socialism at Jamestown

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank chides Dick Armey today for having said that socialism caused starvation at Jamestown.  “Who knew they had socialists in 1607?” Milbank asks.

Actually, lots of people know this. As I wrote three years ago:

Four hundred years ago today 105 men and boys disembarked from three ships and established the first permanent English settlement in North America. They built a fort along what they called the James River, in honor of their king.

The land was lush and fertile, yet within three years most of the colonists died during what came to be known as “the starving time.” Only the establishment of private property saved the Jamestown colony.

What went wrong? There were the usual hardships of pioneers far from home, such as unfamiliar diseases. There were mixed relations with the Indians already living in Virginia. Sometimes the Indians and settlers traded, other times armed conflicts broke out. But according to a governor of the colony, George Percy, most of the colonists died of famine, despite the “good and fruitful” soil, the abundant deer and turkey, and the “strawberries, raspberries and fruits unknown” growing wild.

The problem was the lack of private property. As Tom Bethell writes in his book The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages, “The colonists were indolent because most of them were indentured servants, expected to toil for seven years and contribute the fruits of their labor to the common store.”

Understandably, men who don’t benefit from their hard work tend not to work very hard.

But a new governor arrived and instituted a system of private property.

And then, the Virginia historian Matthew Page Andrews wrote, “As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans – an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.”

John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, said that once private property was instituted, men could engage in “gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.”

I gotta go with Milbank, not Armey, though, on another point of contention: Alexander Hamilton was a big-government man. At least by the standards of 1787; no doubt he’d be appalled at the size, scope, and power of today’s federal government, though he might approve the imperial trappings and authority of modern presidents.

Tuesday Links

  • “Snowmageddon!” If you’ve been watching the news, recent snow storms both prove and disprove global warming, depending on who you talk to. According to Pat Michaels, both sides are wrong: “The fact of the matter is that global warming simply hasn’t done a darned thing to Washington’s snow. The planet was nearly a degree (Celsius) cooler in 1899, when the previous record was set. If you plot out year-to-year snow around here, you’ll see no trend whatsoever through the entire history.”

Stimulus Hypocrisy and the Tea Partiers

The Washington Times recently used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain letters sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture by numerous Republican lawmakers seeking stimulus money for their constituents. All of these Republicans had publicly criticized the stimulus and voted against it.

Georgia Rep. John Linder wrote on his website in October that recent unemployment figures “only reinforce the fact that the $787 billion ‘stimulus’ signed into law eight months ago has done nothing for job growth in this country.” But just two weeks earlier the congressman had sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on behalf of a foundation in his district seeking stimulus funds in which he claimed “the employment opportunities created by this [foundation’s] program would be quickly utilized.”

Remember South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson who infamously shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech to Congress in September? Here’s what he had to say in a letter to Secretary Vilsack on behalf of a foundation in his district:

“We know their endeavor will provide jobs and investment in one of the poorer sections of the Congressional District.”

According to his spokeswoman, Rep. Wilson opposed the stimulus as a “misguided spending bill,” but wanted to make sure his constituents “receive their share of the pie.” That’s pretty much the same excuse the rest of the GOP lawmakers gave: the stimulus is bad but my constituents deserve their “fair share.”

So much for principles.

Speaking of principles, it’s stories like this that should give the burgeoning Tea Party movement pause before getting too close to GOP politicians. I spoke to a newly formed group of a hundred or so tea partiers in southern Indiana back in December. The vast majority was concerned about Washington’s spending addiction and Beltway encroachment on their lives. In the two hours I fielded questions, only one brought up illegal immigration and nobody brought up Obama’s birth certificate. They weren’t worried about Muslims and gays – they were worried about what the mounting federal debt meant for their children and grandchildren’s future.

Therefore it was disconcerting to read that the organizers of this past weekend’s Tea Party Convention in Nashville brought in Tom Tancredo and Sarah Palin to speak. Tancredo’s agenda was typically nasty and counterproductive, while Palin’s combined her formulated hockey mom shtick with a sophomoric jingoism that should have appalled devotees of limited government. Yet, according to the video of her speech, the crowd loved it.

Instead of spending $100,000 on Palin, I suggest Tea Party organizers bring in my colleague John Samples to speak at the next convention. (John’s worth $100,000 but can be had for considerably less.) John recently wrote a column, entitled “Tea Partiers Shouldn’t Date the GOP,” that every budding tea partier should read.

Here’s an excerpt:

The quality that gives the Tea Party movement its legitimacy is that it is so fundamentally illegitimate: outside the establishment, bereft of representation on K Street, and without an identifiable face to speak for it on Meet the Press. This is a movement that sprang deep from within the viscera of America, not from some political poll or focus group.

It is not Republican; it is not even conservative. It has no interest in debating the merits of No Child Left Behind, abstinence-only sex education or George W. Bush’s rationale for going to Iraq. Replacing a “spend and borrow” Democrat with a “spend and borrow” Republican is not the goal of the Tea Party movement.

This movement is simply saying: “We are fine without you, Washington. Now for the love of God, go attend a reception somewhere, and stop making health care and entrepreneurship more expensive than they already are.”

I hope John’s right because if the movement allows itself to become entangled with the same party that publicly eschews big government stimulus while groveling behind the scenes for a piece of it, the [Tea] party will be over.

A Time for Less Government?

The public is unhappy with government.  How could it be otherwise, given the mess our governors have made?  Reports the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of Americans are “dissatisfied” or downright “angry” about the way the federal government is working, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. On average, the public estimates that 53 cents of every tax dollar they send to Washington is “wasted.”

Despite the disapproval of government, few Americans say they know much about the “tea party” movement, which emerged last year and attracted voters angry at a government they thought was spending recklessly and overstepping its constitutional powers. And the new poll shows that the political standing of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who was the keynote speaker last week at the first National Tea Party Convention, has deteriorated significantly.

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade – since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 – and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.

Surely this is a moment for a true political entrepreneur, someone who believes in liberty–across the board–willing to challenge Washington’s bipartisan consensus that government should grow ever bigger and more expensive.  Someone who opposes expensive, and often deadly, social engineering at home and abroad.  Someone willing to simply leave the American people alone, rather than determined to conscript them into yet another annoying, intrusive, and expensive national crusade.  Someone willing to back up his or her rhetoric about individual liberty with action.