To Teach or To Sneer
Authentic conservatives and their libertarian allies have long been a small minority in a larger movement that, for the most part, rejected their radical critique of the managerial state. The “paleos” were singled out for attack by the neoconservatives, that exotic sect of ex-leftists prophetically described by Russell Kirk as “this little Sacred Band—which had made itself exclusive, and now finds itself excluded.”
Today, the neoconservative stranglehold on the American right has been broken. As the role of George W. Bush, their dauphin and dupe, in bringing us to our present predicament has been revealed, right-wing activists involved in the grassroots Tea Party movement have learned their lesson from those years of betrayal and “big-government conservatism.” Speaking to CNN at the Utah GOP convention, where incumbent four-term Republican senator Bob Bennett was rejected as the party nominee, Tea Party leader David Kirkham averred,
I don’t think it’s a matter of “conservative.” I think it’s a matter of fiscal or financial responsibility, what the Tea Party people are about and the vote for TARP and the vote for the bailout was, in our opinion, pretty fiscally irresponsible and that’s what’s raised the ire of most people. . . . That one vote affected a lot of things, changed the rules of the game. President Bush said that where we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market and fundamentally, we just don’t agree. There’s just no way.
The hysterical fear and genuine hatred in the eyes of the “mainstream” media as they cover the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon is hard to miss, and that alone is a good clue as to what they’re about. That’s why I was baffled by a recent article penned for the Christian Science Monitor by Jim Bovard, a libertarian whose work has appeared on Antiwar.com, attacking the Tea Partiers as hypocrites who
oppose big government, except when it is warring, wiretapping, or waterboarding. A movement that started out denouncing government power apparently has no beef with some of the worst abuses of modern times.
It seems Bovard attended a Tea Party in Rockville, Maryland, in the course of which a speaker called for war with Iran, and the sentiments expressed were anything but libertarian or authentically conservative. He proffers poll numbers showing that 57 percent of the Tea Partiers recall Bush with fondness, and that some have the bad taste to admit openly that they like Sarah Palin. And nothing was said about the wiretapping begun by the Bush administration and continued by Obama. Horrible! Terrible! Unbearable! And proof that the Tea Partiers “hate liberals more than they love liberty.”
Bovard’s view of the Tea Party phenomenon is oddly myopic. Maryland, thick with government employees, is hardly a Tea Party stronghold. The insurgent right-wing populism that is now taking the GOP by storm came out of the West, where the first Tea Party demonstrations took place. It was the Ron Paul brigades, and before them Libertarian Party activists, who started the tradition of protests in front of post offices every Tax Day.
The Tea Partiers are not a monolithic organization but a diffuse antigovernment populist movement, sparked by the bank bailouts. Here is a perfect opportunity for libertarians to educate the inchoate right-wing populist masses. And Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty are certainly driving the lesson home: The Republican Party of Maine has recently adopted a platform that stipulates the party’s adherence to Austrian economics! Can a movement like that be all that bad, even by Bovard’s exacting libertarian standards?
Libertarian economic theory, particularly the variant of it promulgated by Ludwig von Mises and his American followers, frames the current crisis in terms ordinary Americans can understand. By making the Federal Reserve a hot political issue, Representative Paul has shown the way forward for libertarians.
We are going into debt and destroying our own economy in order to prop up the government of Afghan “president” Hamid Karzai, a hash-smoking fashion plate whose authority barely extends beyond Kabul. If the Republican Party of Maine is now adhering to Austrian economics, it won’t be long before they realize that you can’t have an empire and a free market. But of course they won’t learn anything if, instead of teaching, we sneer at them from the august pages of the Christian Science Monitor.
This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.