The Tea Party has certainly attracted its share of criticism. Many of those criticisms do not merit a response. However, an organization called the Constitutional Accountability Center issued a brief titled Setting the Record Straight: The Tea Party and the Constitutional Powers of the Federal Government that is interesting and thought provoking.
I found the brief interesting because, even though I immediately disagreed with it, it took some thought to identify the specific reasons why.
I will begin by setting the context. The brief states:
Tea Partiers and their friends have made a great many bold statements about the Constitution and the role of the federal government. While Tea Party activists and their conservative friends and allies do not agree on everything, they are united in their view that the federal government is exercising powers today that are beyond the limits of our Constitution.
Among the examples cited are civil rights laws, environmental protection, corporate regulations, and Social Security.
The brief goes on to argue that the Founding Fathers
established the federal government to act whenever the states were “separately incompetent” and granted the federal government broad power to, among other things, regulate interstate commerce and tax and spend to promote the general welfare. To be sure, our Constitution established a national government of enumerated and not unlimited powers… But while these powers are enumerated, they are also broad and substantial.
On these points, the brief is accurate. Tea Party supporters do claim that the federal government has expanded far beyond its Constitutional limits, such as regulating businesses and excessive taxation. It is also true that the Constitution granted Congress the power to regulate commerce and levy taxes. And this, the brief argues, is a problem for the Tea Party–if the Constitution authorizes Congress to regulate commerce and levy taxes, how can the Tea Party claim that Congress is exceeding its Constitutional authority when it does so?
There are, in fact, two separate issues here: what is and what should be. Or, what is in the Constitution and what should be in the Constitution. The failure to make this distinction presents a significant obstacle to the Tea Party.
The Founding Fathers were giants among men, but they were not Gods. The Constitution is not a perfect document, with the legalization of slavery being the most obvious example. Granting Congress the power to tax and regulate businesses are two further examples. Each of these is a violation of individual rights. Each of these force individuals to act contrary to their own judgment.
If a robber demanded your money, you would recognize his action as a violation of your rights. If your neighbor threatened to tie you up unless you met his demands, you would recognize his actions as a violation of your rights. The nature of these actions does not change when government is the perpetrator. If government takes your money against your will, it has violated your rights just as surely as the robber. If government threatens you with jail if you do not abide by its regulations and mandates, it has violated your rights just as surely as your neighbor.
The fact that government is granted some power does not make it right. The fact that government has the authority to tax and regulate does not mean that it should have that authority.
The only proper and moral purpose of government is the protection of individual rights–the freedom of each individual to act on his own judgment in the pursuit of his own values, as long as he respects the mutual rights of others. Anything that government does beyond this necessarily violates the rights of some for the alleged benefit of others.
Arguing that Congress should be limited to the Constitution, as the Tea Party does, is insufficient. The Tea Party must also address the flaws in the Constitution. To do so, the Tea Party must embrace and defend individual rights, completely and consistently.