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A Cheer and a Half for the Tea Party


Were it not for the Tea Party, the debt-ceiling controversy might never have taken place. Kudos on that count alone.

It comes as no surprise that the governing class and its boosters in the media portray the Tea Party folks as a collection of bumpkins and idiots who “don’t know the difference between campaigning and governing” — indeed, who would rather destroy the world economy than compromise their dogmatic insistence on spending cuts and resistance to tax increases.

But the policy and media elites’ attitude reveals more about them than about the Tea Party. The spenders and borrowers in Washington have had their way largely unimpeded for generations. What have they wrought? A formal debt about equal to the American economy’s annual output (GDP), a 75-year “entitlement” unfunded liability of $39 trillion, a budget deficit that far exceeds $1 trillion a year (more than 40 cents per dollar spent, about 10 percent of GDP), and federal spending that consumes about 25 percent of GDP.

And that isn’t enough for the governing class and its apologists in the intelligentsia!

All this happened before there was a Tea Party. Without it the debt ceiling would very likely have been raised with little fuss, as it has been so often before. It would not have been linked to a debate over cutting spending, reducing the deficit, and shrinking the government. Some Tea Partiers opposed raising the ceiling under any circumstances. Contrary to the power elite, that is not a sign not of ignorance and inexperience but of good sense.

No one exemplified anti–Tea Party snobbery more clearly than MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell (though he had close competition from his colleagues Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow). Stunned and outraged that the Tea Party was able to keep a new debt-ceiling bill from being passed without difficulty or even public notice, he furiously waved an old one-page debt-limit bill, fuming, “There is nothing easier for Congress to do than to raise the debt limit.”

How pathetic to see O’Donnell being so clueless about two important things: first, that the ease with which the government has been able to borrow is a big part of the problem facing the country, and second, that this ease in abusing the American people is precisely why the Tea Party emerged.

For O’Donnell and his state-worshiping ilk, any resistance to the growth of government spending — which, let us recall, is nothing but the forcible transfer of scarce resources from private owners to greedy, power-lusting politicians — is an impertinence, a sign of disrespect for one’s betters. How dare anyone question those anointed to “run the country”? How dare mere citizens object to being committed to more debt, which will impose additional burdens on them, their children, and their grandchildren? How dare they thwart the grand schemes their benevolent rulers have in store for them?

Well, the Tea Party knows better than O’Donnell & Company that the politicians are not our betters. And they know a political comeuppance is long overdue.

For all that, I give a cheer and a half for the Tea Party. But why not more than that?

Because the Tea Partiers need to be more radical. They have missed too many opportunities to advance their cause.

For one thing, they have been largely silent on the American empire. The government spends more than $1 trillion a year on imperial activities misleadingly called “defense,” far more than the nearly $700 billion in the War Department’s budget. Empires are bloody expensive, and the sooner the Tea Party understands that, the more effective it will be in fighting for smaller government. They also should understand that that trillion dollars is not just a misguided effort to protect American security. It is a scam largely designed to line the pockets of the military-industrial complex. They can start by reading President Eisenhower’s farewell address.

Second, Tea Partiers need to learn that the middle-class welfare state is a snare and a delusion. Social Security and Medicare masquerade as benevolent mutual-aid programs, but they are devices to foster allegiance to power. If you depend on politicians for support in your later, vulnerable years, how can your freedom truly be secure? The welfare state robs working people while turning the elderly into wards of the cold state.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.