A Tea-Party Postscript

According to Nate Silver’s estimate, something approaching a quarter million people took part in the tea party protests that took place around the country yesterday. That seems like a large number, and maybe even the start of something big, right ?

Ross Douthat thinks not, and doubts that they’ll have any more impact on the growth of the state than the protests against the Iraq War did in stopping that conflict:

They resemble nothing so much as the anti-war protests during Bush’s first term.


But they do have all of the weaknesses of the anti-war marches: Their message is intertwined with a sense of disenfranchisement and all kinds of inchoate cultural resentments, they’ve brought various wacky extremists out of the woodwork (you know, like Glenn Beck), and just as George W. Bush benefited from having opposition to his policies identified with peacenik marchers in Berkeley and Ann Arbor, so Barack Obama probably benefits from having the opposition (such as it is) associated with a bunch of Fox News fans marching through the streets on Tax Day, parroting talk radio tropes and shouting about socialism.


Still, here we are in the sixth year of the Iraq War, and all those anti-war protests, their excesses and stupidities notwithstanding, look a lot more prescient in hindsight than they did (to me, at least) when they were going on. So if you’re inclined to sneer and giggle at the Tea Parties, keep in mind that just because a group of protesters looks ragged, resentful, and naive, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong to be alarmed:

Alarmed, yes, just as the anti-war protesters were alarmed at the idea of their country engaging in pre-emptive war based on dubious intelligence that latter proved to be entirely wrong, and fought a war without any idea of how to end it or what would follow in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s removal from power.

In hindsight, it seems clear that the anti-war protesters were more right than wrong but, despite their vocal opposition, we’ve lost thousands of troops and hundred of billions of dollars and have very little to show for it.

Along the same lines as Douthat, and echoing a question I raised yesterday, Alex Knapp believes that the movement’s biggest mistake is not figuring out what it’s for:

[I]ncreasing government spending is alarming. There’s no question about that. The higher deficits being predicted under an Obama Administration should be a cause for concern. But you can’t argue against higher deficits and for cutting taxes at the same time. Real life doesn’t work that way. You can’t simply wish federal revenue into being.

By the same token, you can’t just go around saying we need to “cut spending.” That’s just mindless handwaving. Let’s put this simply. 80% of the budget falls into five categories: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Defense, Veteran’s Benefits, and Interest on the Debt. EIGHTY PERCENT. So if you don’t tell me what you’re going to be able to feasibly cut in those categories, you are not approaching the problem seriously.

Knapp is, of course, entirely correct.

The problems that we face are far bigger, and far more serious, than the relatively paltry sums that most people point to when they talk about government waste (earmarks, for example, account for less than 1 percent of the total Federal Budget). We aren’t going to solve are problems by nibbling at the margins, it’s going to take real sacrifice, it’s going to cause real pain, and it’s something we need to be talking about now.

Standing around calling Obama a socialist, or wearing a t-shirt that says “Who is John Galt ?” accomplishes nothing.

  • http://gordonunleashed.com/blog/ Stephen Gordon


    I can’t speak for other events, but I believe that some tangible results from the Birmingham event will be seen at the state and local level over the next two years. There was probably enough activism to impact the gubernatorial race and perhaps one or two congressional seats. The impact will be seen in state legislative races, as well.

    At least one new organization was springboarded to prominence and even the Campaign for Liberty folks will benefit a lot from it.

    I also think our state legislators will think twice about any tax increase (and possibly even cut state spending) for the next few years.

    The impact at the federal level will take longer than at the local level — but even getting rid of one or two big-government congressmen will make an eventual difference.

  • Eric

    Actually, and echoing Stephen, I think these have very little resemblance to the anti-war protests. That said, those protests may not have “stopped the war”, but they sure as hell were part and parcel of the GOP loss of power. Think about that for minute.

  • Servius

    We had a declaration people could sign that specified what this was all about. The declaration specifically said we chose Freedom and Liberty and spelled out how Government had threatened these.

    I have looked but have not found a copy of that declaration online.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    Do you honestly think that a sizeable number of the people that turned out yesterday are willing to endure the pain that will come from the dismantling of the middle-class welfare state ?

    All I see when people start talking about details (and I don’t mean you or most libertarians for that matter) is discussion about cutting “pork” and protests against “earmarks.” All of that is well and good, but it does absolutely nothing to actually curb the size, scope, and power of the state.

    Some might even say that all this talk about pork and earmarks is a diversion:


    Dismantling the welfare state is not going to be easy, and I’ve yet to see any signs that the people have the stomach for it.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    In all honesty, here’s what I think:

    We’re fucked.

    I think we’re more likely to hit a crash or devolve into a euro-style democratic socialist state than actually recover.

    But I at least hope to encourage those who are fighting on the right side (even if they’ve only recently arrived).

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  • Akston

    1. Social Security: I’m closer to receiving Social Security benefits than I’d like to dwell on, but I’d be in favor of ratcheting down and then eliminating Social Security – even if it meant that I’d need to save even more, or keep working for the rest of my life. Many retirees fade quickly when they stop having to accomplish anything anyway. Humans do better when they are producing,

    2. Medicare/Medicaid: I cannot find a clear charter in the U.S. Constitution authorizing the federal government to provide health insurance. Medicare and Medicaid should be phased out and eliminated. Yep, that’d probably mean costlier and rougher times for me as I age. In my case, I’d prefer that to stealing from everyone else to get treatment for me.

    3. Defense: Defense is easy when we stop assuming America has to control and tailor world events via military might. The federal government is broke (11 trillion in debit, in fact). Our time as a “superpower” is over. As a broke consumer-heavy debtor nation, we should scale our military down to a fraction of its current size and orient it towards actual defense, rather than world-building. Eliminate nearly all of our 700+ overseas bases and retool for a mobile, intelligence-driven, twenty-first century reality. America should focus on trade and diplomacy, and save our expensive muscle for conflicts we cannot avoid.

    4. Veterans’ Benefits: I’d honor all existing veterans’ benefits. Drastically reducing the mission and size of our military would ameliorate this expense going forward.

    5. Interest on the Debt: This will be crippling. It’ll be more crippling if we continue to add trillions to it now.

    As well as attacking that 80% of the spending budget, I’m fully in favor of unchaining the productive energy of 300 million Americans. While cutting expenses, government should be eliminating every conceivable barrier to increasing the wealth of the nation, not stifling it further. Wealth comes from people trading goods and services in a free market. Wealth comes from production, not simply demand. Money and credit are not the same as wealth, and cannot be substituted for it.

    But to answer the gist of the question: You’re right.

    The cuts are not likely to garner support. A large majority of the population is too addicted to “free stuff” from the federal government to be weaned of the addiction without arguably fatal withdrawals.

    Eliminating barriers is now seen as the terrifying freedom of deregulation (even though no such deregulation was in play for the current crisis and central regulation will never be as effective or as ethical as simply allowing bad practices to fail).

    Those who find out about the federal budget commitments (the 80%, etc) have choices to make. They see the iceberg in the path of our ship of state. They can try to muster other citizens’ will to grasp the helm and begin to steer clear of the iceberg. They can dismiss the futile efforts of those that are trying to steer clear and throw their hands up in surrender or jeer at them. They can build a large new swimming pool on deck, turn off the hot engines because some people get burned on them, and steer directly into the iceberg. Or they can start getting in good water-treading shape.

    I support and join those who pick the first route (Tea Party protestors), but think it’s probably too late to turn a ship this big moving this fast. As a backup, I’m working on my water-treading.

  • FGH

    The common theme was protesting what many see as the government’s overreaching in terms of taxation and spending, but also, and perhaps even more important and too little stressed—the erosion of values that have been at the core of American life since they were fought for and won during the American Revolution. Instead of the free market commanding the economic heights with its emphasis on consumer choice, competitive prices and profit-seeking, they see a shift to government control and industrial policy dictating the nation’s commerce. Instead of self-reliance, a traditional work ethic and personal accountability, the tea party protesters see a shift to rent seeking (the extraction of uncompensated value from others without making any contribution) and moral hazard (the prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk).

    Alexis de Toqueville, in his seminal “Democracy in America,” worried that democracy might lead to a tyranny of the majority—a tyranny of “all over all,” which might result when the people seek to use government to protect them in their mediocrity by restricting the freedom of any who might challenge or endanger them. This could lead to a kind of sterile suffocation of talents or ambitions, he feared, and the utter surrender of freedom in exchange for equality. “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” wrote de Toqueville, “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to freedom or servitude, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

    One senses de Toqueville would sympathize with the tea parties.