The critics of the Tea Party

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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.

Eating up the usufruct of the lands

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After Standard & Poors (S&P) lowered the credit rating of the federal government, an Obama administration official said, “This is a facts-be-damned decision.” So what are the facts?

The facts are:

  • The federal government had “revenues” of $2.16 trillion in 2010
  • The federal government has a debt of more than $13 trillion, or just under six times its annual “revenue”
  • The federal government is running deficits over $1 trillion, and is expected to continue to do so into the foreseeable future
  • The federal government’s unfunded liabilities are estimated to be more than $100 trillion

To put this in perspective, let us apply the same ratios to an average American family. The median family income is about $50,000.  If the average family followed the lead of the federal government, it would have debt of about $300,000. It would continue to add $25,000 to that debt each year. What do you think that family’s credit score would be? How long would creditors allow that family to live well beyond its means? Do you think that they could easily obtain more credit?

Of course, the federal government is not bound by the same rules as ordinary citizens. The federal government can simply reach into your wallet and take more money. If you did that, you’d be arrested. If the government does it, it is “shared sacrifice.”

There is certainly something damning about the S&P downgrade. But it isn’t S&P that should be damned.

In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

[N]o man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come; and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which is the reverse of our principle.

Isn’t the federal deficit eating “up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come”? Isn’t the government obligating future generations to pay for the profligacy of the dead?

For politicians, the “future” is limited to the next election. That means offering today’s voters promises that can only be kept by piling up mountains of debt. And voters, while they might decry the federal deficits, demand that the government leave programs like Social Security and Medicare untouched. So who is the guilty party? Voters or politicians who pander to them?

The average family will not solve its financial woes by simply bringing in more money. Nor can the federal government. The only rational solution to the budget deficit is to cut spending dramatically. But that will not occur until voters quit eating up the usufruct of the lands.

The Founding Fathers and democracy

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Democracy means unlimited majority rule. The majority may do as it pleases simply because it is the majority. Under democracy the individual is subservient to the majority, that is, the collective. Democracy is a form of collectivism.

Collectivism holds that individuals exist only as a member of a group—whether a race, an economic class, or the State. Individuals per se do not possess rights, but only in their capacity as a member of a group. Under democracy an individual possesses rights only when he is a member of the majority. Even then those rights are limited and continually threatened, because if the individual finds himself in the minority on any issue, he is required to follow the dictates of the majority. He may be on the winning side on a vote regarding light rail, but be on the losing side on a vote regarding school bonds.

For the most part, the Founders were opposed to democracy. James Madison, for example, wrote “There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong.” Thomas Jefferson stated that “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” And perhaps my favorite is a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”

The Founders were avid students of history. They studied all forms of government—monarchies, parliamentary systems, democracies, and more. They sought to erect a system that prevented a tyranny of one—such as monarchy—as well as a tyranny of many—such as democracy. The Founders recognized the primacy of the individual and sought to protect his rights.

The Founders established a constitutional republic for this purpose. They limited and enumerated the powers of the federal government, securing for the individual the freedom to act as he judges best. This is precisely what democracy prevents.

Democracy forces you to act in accordance with the demands of the “will of the people,” regardless of your own judgment. Democracy compels you to surrender your liberty and your property for the “general welfare.” Democracy forces you to sacrifice your rights.

The Founding Fathers understood this. It is time that contemporary Americans did as well.