What the Tea Partiers Really Want
The passion behind the populist insurgency is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma.
What do the tea partiers really want? The title of a recent book by two of the movement's leaders offers an answer: "Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto." The authors, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, write that "We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others."
This claim should cause liberals to do a double-take. Isn't it straight out of John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of liberalism?
Because a generalized love of liberty doesn't distinguish tea partiers from other Americans, liberals have been free to speculate on the "real" motives behind the movement. Explanations so far have spanned a rather narrow range, from racism (they're all white!) to greed (they just don't want to pay taxes!) to gullibility (Glenn Beck has hypnotized them!). Such explanations allow liberals to disregard the moral claims of tea partiers. But the passion of the tea-party movement is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.
The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "action," and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity.
In the tea partiers' scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people—from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions—under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson's effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.
Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police).
Now jump ahead to today's ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers' money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?
As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma's Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.
One of the biggest disagreements between the political left and right is their conflicting notions of fairness. Across many surveys and experiments, we find that liberals think about fairness in terms of equality, whereas conservatives think of it in terms of karma. In our survey for YourMorals.org, we asked Americans how much they agreed with a variety of statements about fairness and liberty, including this one: "Ideally, everyone in society would end up with roughly the same amount of money." Liberals were evenly divided on it, but conservatives and libertarians firmly rejected it.
On more karmic notions of fairness, however, conservatives and libertarians begin to split apart. [...]
It goes on to give examples. Read the whole thing.
For some people, the notion of "liberty" means being protected from the consequences of their own bad decisions... at someone else's expense, of course.
I think conservatives see liberty as the freedom "to", freedom to do and be, to excel, to take chances and reap the rewards, and take the consequences if you fail. And learn from that and try again, until you get it right.
Leftists tend to see liberty more as freedom "from", freedom from having to compete, from conventional social mores, and freedom from the consequences of their own actions. And without consequences, there is no incentive to learn from ones mistakes, so the mistakes just keep getting repeated. Which to me explains a lot about how we got to where we are now.
Real adults understand that you can't have Christmas every day. There are a lot of people pretending to be adults, who need to grow up.
I see the tea party movement as being a rebellion of true adults, who are saying "ENOUGH" to the excesses of the infantilized. If the Tea Party movement can keep it's focus on fiscal responsibility and accountability, it's my hope that they will attract the support of enough true adults from all political persuasions, to meet on the common middle ground and get us through the times ahead of us. And that the moochers won't outnumber the producers and drag them down, destroying us all. There has got to be a better way, and it will be up to the adults to find it and take us there.