The Tea Party Movement is an extremely vocal and powerful force of opposition against big government. But how much does it actually care about individual liberty?
To be sure, the cause of liberty in the United States has seen many benefits from the Tea Party movement. Glenn Beck famously catapulted Friedrich Hayek’s economic and political treatise “The Road to Serfdom,” a favorite of classical liberals, to the Amazon best-seller list and even called for a non-interventionist foreign policy and cuts in military spending. Although there are strong voices in the Tea Party movement, no person or group seems to have emerged as its definitive leader. This suggests it’s a bottom-up movement driven by ideas and beliefs rather than loyalty to politicians or parties.
ost importantly, the Tea Party is one of the major forces pushing back on recently-passed health care legislation, financial and automobile company bailouts and ill-conceived environmental regulations. To the extent that the Tea Party can delay or stop increases in the size and scope of government, the movement is a potential ally for freedom.
Anyone who believes in a free society, however, should be skeptical of the notion that Tea Partiers truly care about individual liberty. According to a New York Times poll, 42 percent of Tea Party supporters believe we should decrease legal immigration, while 14 percent favor increasing it. Four in 10 believe the government shouldn’t recognize the right of same-sex couples to enter into marriage-like contracts. The Tea Party is largely focused on economic issues, but if the Tea Party becomes more influential it may have to deal with social issues – potentially leading to a fracture in the movement.
I’m also suspicious of the Tea Party’s opposition to government spending and deficits. Tea Partiers overwhelmingly report wanting to reduce the size of government, but it’s important to remember that arguments against the recent health care reform law often came with a plea not to touch Medicare. The Tea Party is adopting an odd “keep the government away from Medicare” attitude, in which they claim to oppose government spending but are surprisingly protective of the entitlement programs that are most likely to lead us to fiscal ruin.
The Tea Party’s strong stance on opposing increases in the size and scope of government resonates with me. But I haven’t heard much to suggest that the Tea Party would be in favor of taking limited-government principles to their logical conclusion, which is to oppose intrusive government largess wherever it occurs. A true limited-government worldview would scrutinize government regulations not only of businesses and the environment, but also marriage and immigration. Economically speaking, if Tea Partiers want to be serious about government spending, they have to be willing to put the sacred cows of Medicare, Social Security and defense spending on the chopping block.
Going into November, Republicans will inevitably court the Tea Party vote, hoping to ride the wave of anti-Obama sentiment. If Tea Partiers want to remain principled small-government activists, they should be suspicious. Republicans would love to use the Tea Party for its own political ends, but an honest look at the GOP track record shows they’re not serious about limited government – remember Medicare expansions and exploding deficits under Bush? If the Bush years showed us anything, it was that the Republican Party is not the party of small government. The Tea Party should (to borrow from Sarah Palin) “refudiate” the GOP if it wants to be serious about government spending.
As of now, I’m willing to work with – and have worked with – Tea Partiers on opposing big government. But until they can show me that they are serious about principles of small government and individual freedom, I can’t count myself as one of them.
Preston Mui is a sophomore in the College and the founding president of Hoyas for Liberty.