Over the last few months I have been keeping an eye on the tea party movement. My participation has waned and heightened throughout, from my first impressions to my ultimate conclusions about the utility of tea parties. This weekend I was able to glean a different perspective when they asked me to deliver one of the speeches at the DC Independence Day Tea Party at Upper Senate Park next to the Capitol Building. This time, I was able to get a fuller view of the movement by seeing the behind-the-scenes organization and talking with the other speakers.
Since April of 2009 people have been gathering around the country to attend “tea parties”. At these rallies, ordinary citizens, democrat, republican, or other are able to register their displeasure with the way their country is being run.
If you attended the Independence day tea party in Washington, DC this past Saturday, you would have noted by the 2000-strong attendance that moment hasn’t slowed, angry hasn’t been quelled, and the citizens appetite for change has yet to be sated.
Among the sea of Gadsden flags, there were signs depicting the varying shades of ire among the attendees “Say no to knee-cap-and-trade,” “Obama: Tax Terrorist,” “give me my rights you keep the change,” “Palin 2012,” The Ron Paul folks were out in force, as were veterans and religious groups. Parents brought children, little old ladies gave out cookies. There were even vendors selling Gadsden flags for $5 a pop: ah, capitalism.
And though there was a quaint, almost county-fair atmosphere, there was also a distinct tension among the crowd. Perhaps the movement’s biggest asset is it’s greatest weakness: the issue it centers on is an undefined anger about “the way things are going”.
After I delivered my speech I wandered through the crowd, speaking with a number of party-goers. Some friends in the audience recounted how my suggestion to read Atlas Shrugged as a way to understand the thinking that led us from 1776 to today had sparked a mini-argument between two audience members. A little old lady thanked me for that same reference. One middle-aged gentleman pulled me aside and spoke to me as if we were co-conspirators. “Why hasn’t anyone centralized the movement yet? We could be so much more effective if we got organized,” he stressed, as if I was the one to organize the group.
My reply was simply that as a decentralized, grass-roots movement, the principles among the attendees and their specific targets of ire are too disparate to really form a cohesive political party. Most want a limited government and less spending; just how little, and how much less are issues that the group doesn’t seem to agree on.
The way the tea party movement can be leveraged into real action is by targeting specific issues in order to put immediate pressure on those in congress. But we can only force real change by forcing politicians to stick to certain principles—and unfortunately, not all tea party-goers share the same principles. One example: after having an agreeable conversation with a woman at the event about how government intervention was getting in the way of an individual’s right to make his or her own choices, we ended up fighting about marijuana legalization. Rumor had it that a pot-legalization protest was happening just around the corner and I joked that we should join forces and invite them to our rally. The woman shook her head violently. “That’s a bad idea–we don’t want them,” she said, seemingly shocked to find that I wasn’t of the same mind on the issue. I saw the two protests as intimately linked ideologically (or at least, I believed they should be). The tea party movement is about liberty and, in essence, so is the drug legalization movement. When I asked the woman to explain, she rationalized that certain drugs should be illegal because they caused violence and poverty in other South and Central American countries. I tried to explain the practical argument for legalizing drugs, reducing the cost and eliminating the criminality would eliminate most of the cartels. Then I tried explaining that if she truly wanted government to stay out of her life and protect her liberty, she would have to extend the same principle to her neighbors—even if she didn’t like what they chose to do with their own lives. She wasn’t listening to me anymore though, she wasn’t interested.
Another big DC tea party is planned to take place on 9/12. And while I do hope the momentum continues to pick up, the rallies will have little lasting effects unless the party-goers accept the principle that if you want a small government and you want to make your own choices, that means you have to accept the lawful decisions of your neighbors, whether you like them or not.
For those interested, I have the text of the speech I delivered. (The actual delivery is a little different and was cut short due to time-constraints).
Happy Independence Day. Wow there sure are a lot of you here. I think the right-wing conspiracy that pays for us all to come to these parties might just go bankrupt after today.
Is there really a better day to protest an out of control government than on the anniversary of the day the founders did the same thing over 200 years ago?
It is my hope that someday our descendants will look back at today and think of it as the day Americans re-declared their independence.
To make such a declaration we need to understand, as the founders understood, what it truly means to be independent.
At the original Boston Tea Party, the colonists didn’t protest the Tea Act because of high costs, tax increases, or even taxation without representation. In reality, the act actually reduced the price of tea in the states. Before the act the East India Trading Company was struggling to sell its merchandise in America, but the British government—many of whom had a stake in the company gave it special privileges and penalized its competition; essentially giving the East India Company a tea bailout.
But the colonists saw it for what it was—a pay off—and threw it into the harbor.
They weren’t just resisting the tax, government spending, or government intervention, they rejected the very idea that government’s role should be as a master over slaves that exist only by its allowance.
No! The founders said. They did not see themselves as cattle or slaves who needed permission to live from any man or any government. And they were willing to risk their lives and wealth to reject that idea of humanity. But they weren’t just fighting against something, they were fighting for something: They were fighting for their ideal of humanity as individuals who have a right to exist—not because anyone gave them permission—but by virtue of being human. From years struggling on farms and in towns across the newly formed America the founders had a clear understanding that human life required the ability to make one’s own decisions for the purpose of one’s own life and happiness. Without these rights one can’t be truly independent.
This ideal of humanity led the founders to create a document that changed the world forever. The declaration of independence was a radical statement, proclaiming that humans are endowed with the inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now, you’re going to hear that phrase a lot today, but really think about those words. Inalienable that means that these rights cannot be taken away without removing what it is to be human. And the rights it names are specific and carefully worded: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not the guarantee of happiness. It says that the protection of these rights is the ONLY reason that governments are instituted among men—to protect them from anyone or anything that tries to tread on them.
The founders knew these rights are fundamental to the existence of human life and the only reason for a government is to guard them. What then if a government stops protecting them—should we just ignore it? Should we go on living as slaves under its rule? Or, should we do something about it?
When the founders looked around them they saw what I see: teachers, builders, inventors, all struggling with their own private challenges and achieving their own successes. They did not see weak, begging children in need of a Mother England or an Uncle Sam to tell them how to survive. All they needed was the liberty to live their own lives—and they would have nothing less. Their ideal of humanity was of strong, brave, and wise individuals and as a result they created the best country in the world.
Now, when I say that, I’m not being nationalistic.Though the principles laid out in the declaration weren’t executed perfectly, America was still the first country to recognize that individual rights are the basis for a just society. This shining beacon of liberty attracted the greatest minds and most industrious people from all over the world. And America quickly became the leader in business, science, and medicine.
Something has definitely changed over the last two centuries. While in some ways, we have moved closer to the ideals of individual rights by strengthening the principles in the declaration—such as abolishing slavery, giving women the vote, and doing away with Jim Crow laws for example. But overall, we have moved far, very far away from the ideal of a government that’s sole purpose is the protection of individual life, liberty, and the ability for individuals to pursue their own happiness. At some point they started believing the role of government was to support lives, and to provide happiness, homes, successful businesses, and medical care. And it was at that point the government stopped serving us and started exploiting us.
It didn’t happen overnight. It happened by a process of chipping away over 200 years at the principles laid out by founders. The first time someone demanded that government give them anything other than protection for their rights. Because nothing is free: for the government to give, it must first take.
The first time a bureaucrat said everyone has a right to eat in a smoke-free restaurant and took away the restaurant owners right to run his business as he saw fit. The first time someone declared it was government’s purpose to provide social welfare and took your right to keep your whole paycheck. The first time the FDA said its purpose was to protect you from bad drugs and took away your right to choose your own course of treatment. When it from one citizen to give to another or one business to subsidize another, these were the first steps that began to shift government from the obedient protector to the meddling parent. And every step was justified in the name of the ‘public good’.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
The reason we didn’t stand up in each instance and shout NO! was because we didn’t understand the full meaning of independence. It is not just a state of being free from tyranny, it is the condition of living ones own life for oneself without demanding the help or sacrifice of anyone else.
When those in power asserted their right to steal from us, they did so in the name of public welfare. To help the needy, unable, and to protect us from ourselves. By this justification government heaped regulations on employers to protect workers, meddled in businesses to prevent greedy corporations from taking advantage of consumers, took money from the wealthy to redistribute to the poor. At the core of this justification is the assertion that we are not independent, but interdependent, the assertion that we are our brothers keepers and if one fails, we all fail.
Based on this principle—the principle that government’s role is to provide for public welfare, it’s powers are virtually limitless and ever expanding.
A few examples.
When the department of agriculture was founded in 1839 it had a budget of $1000 to so it could collect statistics. Today, with a budget over $96 billion and it does everything from regulating land-use, to controlling food prices—forcing us to pay farmers to charge higher prices for food!
The FDA which was formally establish in 1906 to simply monitor drug safety now holds pharmaceutical companies by the neck, requiring hoop jumping to such a degree that the length of time before a newly created drug becomes available is increased sometime by years, the cost significantly increased, and the number of drugs available significantly reduced.
Lately we’ve seen some audacious federal projects that barely pretend to serve a needed public purpose: a bike library for one town in Colorado, hundreds of thousands given to the lobster institute, over half a million given to help the homeless problem in a town in New York –a town that says it has no homeless problem.
But it isn’t just about money. While a lot of freedoms have been given to Americans, government has ever increased its presence in our lives and ever decision.
In short these regulations have squelched our ability to choose how we conduct the business of our lives. Companies can’t offer the goods and services we want, and we can’t purchase the items that would improve our lives.
The maze of rules, fines, and tax breaks, created the incentives for businesses to make decisions not based on what consumers or customers want, but how it can best navigate the ocean of regulations. Now government agents have the audacity to say that capitalism has failed and that we must have more government intervention for society’s own good.
To quote the author and philosopher Ayn Rand: “One of the methods used by statists to destroy capitalism consists in establishing controls that tie a given industry hand and foot, making it unable to solve its problems, then declaring that freedom has failed and stronger controls are necessary”. She said that in 1975 and by the way, if you want to understand the thinking that led us from 1776 to today, you should read her novel Atlas Shrugged.
Let me be clear, our problems aren’t simply economic. Butf the only economic system that defends the rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness is laissez-faire capitalism.
The picture may look gloomy now, but there is a bright side. We already know that to throw off the chains of tyranny we just need to do as the founders did; assert our rights to pursue our life, liberty, and our own individual happiness. Not our neighbor’s happiness and not happiness as defined by a university professor or a bureaucrat in Washington—Our own personal happiness.
Today we can stand up and say we’re not going to sell out our freedom. We don’t need the government to save us from ourselves—we need government prevent force, outlaw fraud, protect liberty, and leave us free!
Today we can stand up and say we’re not going to take any deal that offers us empty promises in exchange for our rights. As I have said, like the original tea party these modern protests aren’t about bailouts, taxes, or even government intervention. It is about what all those things imply. It is about our inalienable right to make choices about our own lives, and property, for our own happiness and the demand for a government that protects our ability to live free and independent lives.