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Is The Tea Party Libertarian?

Ilya Somin links to a Cato Paper that says that the Tea Party movement is “functionally libertarian” Professor Somin notes:

How much of a libertarian impact the Tea Party will ultimately have remains to be seen. As I noted in my 2011 article, it’s possible the movement will peter out, get coopted by the socially conservative GOP establishment, or simply fail to gain enough political traction to influence policy any more than it already has. But Kirby and Ekins do make a strong case that the Tea Party has a strong libertarian element, and that it has pushed the GOP in a more libertarian direction over the last two years.

I’ve been reluctant to apply any labels to the Tea Party movement, because I think what they stand for varies quite a lot from group to group, and region to region. I went to a few rallies when this phenomena started, to see what it was about, and the best label I could apply to it is grassroots anger. We attended a forum hosted by one of the local groups, after it got a bit more organized, which previewed various contenders for the seat now held by Mike Fitzpatrick. The “Tea Party” candidate, who was younger than me by a few years, was pro-choice and favored drug legalization, which is probably why the county GOP did everything they could to ensure the Tea Party groups had no place at the table. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the Tea Party movement, and haven’t been active in any groups, but I will admit they piss off and scare the right people, at least around here.

I want to thank reader Harold for pointing me to this article, outlining a scenario for why the Democratic Party is finished, and why the GOP will then move closer to the center and split, with the Tea Party folks forming a party that will eventually replace the Democrats. I like analysis like this, but I think it’s a lot of wishful thinking. People who follow politics closely often overestimate how much people really think about it. Party identification can be strong, and can take a long time to change. People who think of themselves as Democrats aren’t going to transform into Republicans, even if the Republicans move left. It would be like a Red Sox fan having to suddenly become a Yankee’s fan. Without some kind of calamity and major realignment, which I’ll give could happen, parties just don’t fail and get replaced — they adapt. So I would say rumors of either the death of the GOP or the Democrats is greatly exaggerated.

26 Responses to “Is The Tea Party Libertarian?”

  1. Exurbankevin says:

    Having gone to Right Online and a number of other “Tea Party” events, I’d say that while the Tea Party has a great number of people of faith inside of it, advancing a moral cause is not the Tea Party’s mission, so in that sense, it feels more Libertarian, even while it’s members may not ascribe to a lot of Libertarian ideals.

  2. asdf says:

    The tea party is only a poor caricature of libertaianism. Likewise for Cato, which is more accurately described as “beltwaytarian”, although even they are much more libertarian than those teahad imbeciles. (Flamesuit on… :))

  3. Andy B. says:

    The perversion of the word “libertarian” over the past couple decades has been one of my pet peeves, so I guess the question “Is the Tea Party Libertarian?” begs the question “What do you mean by ‘libertarian?'” E.g., opposing this government is not necessarily the same thing as opposing government.

    But avoiding that question for now, I’ll observe that what the Tea Party is all about has never been pinned down by any sort of objective, non-hand-waving platform. I’ve engaged in any number of online debates with TP participants/sympathizers who swore that it did not mean this-or-that, and I’ve come back five minutes later with a small handful of URLs for self-professed TP websites that were dedicated to almost nothing but that issue. It is a real problem for the Tea Party, that I have not seen them acknowledging; just different factions denying the presence or legitimacy of each other.

    At the personal level, I only “attended” one Tea Party rally, that a buddy and I stumbled into by accident down in Dover, DE. It gave me flashbacks to some of the “Clean Sweep” rallies (sponsored by CAGW, as I recall) I attended about twenty years ago. Twenty years melted away, and it looked to me like the same collection of Usual Suspect cranks and political opportunists, with the only thing changed being the astroturf organizations underwriting everything. And, twenty years ago I was attending rallies as a Libertarian rubbing shoulders in their “big tent,” that was willing to accept libertarian support without reciprocating in any important way.

  4. AndyN says:

    I doubt that many of the people involved in this movement are true libertarians, but I think most of them are more libertarian than either establishment Republicans or Democrats are allowed to be. This thought just came to me, so I’ll have to ponder it a little more to decide if I really think it’s true, but I’ll throw it out there anyway: I wonder if they’re actually more classic liberal than libertarian. The word liberal has been horribly misused for generations – most democrats wouldn’t recognize a truly liberal approach to most issues if it jumped up and bit them in the ass. Maybe trying to describe Tea Partiers as libertarians is just convenient because the word for what they really are has lost its meaning.

    As for the Democratic party disappearing – while your Yankees/Red Sox analogy is certainly true, I think there’s another factor that will prevent it from ever happening. There’s BIG money in partisan politics. There’s just no way that the people controlling that money are going to give up that control, nor are the people who are either in line to take control of that money or the recipients of that money going to allow the gravy train to run out of track.

    • Harold says:

      While there is “BIG money in partisan politics“, there are myriad examples in politics where money couldn’t “buy” a vote. A minimum is been required to get exposure, but that’s less and less relevant as the Internet supplants prior inherently more expensive media. Get your message out and you can win on the merits.

      The thesis of the article linked to is that the Democrats are the part of “free ice cream”, that it will run out in the near future—Obama’s gift to the nation; following Gary North I’m now calling it the Great Default—and it’s an iffy proposition they’ll negotiate this cataclysmic discontinuity.

      Sooner or later this will become the issue of the day, like slavery was in the early 1800s, and it extinguished the Whigs because of their failure to successfully address it. The Democrat’s current product is “free ice cream”; upon the Great Default they’ll no longer be able to “sell” that in elections. (As H. L. Menken put it, “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.)” So what will they sell then?

      If they fail to find an answer to that question (I myself worry about the example of Argentina), who’s going to keep voting for them? If they can’t win elections, who’s going to indefinitely continue sending them money? (I grant you, the money will go somewhere.)

      • Andy B. says:

        “Sooner or later this will become the issue of the day, like slavery was in the early 1800s. . .”

        The analogy fails because, in the early 1800s, everyone in the United States wasn’t a slave owner; where in the early 2000s, practically everyone gets some flavor of free icecream. I’ll give up mine right after you give up yours — maybe.

        • Harold says:

          You just made my point, “in the early 2000s, practically everyone gets some flavor of free icecream.

          The free ice cream is going to run out. Pretty soon, I expect—any of you willing to bet Romney and the Republican Congressional leadership Profiles in Courage are going to drop the annual deficit below a trillion prior to being forced to? (A big economic recovery could close enough of the gap, but this isn’t 1980, I don’t particularly see that in the cards, at least not a big recovery; just stopping the recent active damage is going to be very difficult, and, hey, what about SarBox and everything else that ended the half decade run of the VC financed startup? (which I cite because these are the big job creators).)

          To the extent what I quoted you saying in true, the Great Default will become the issue for practically everyone.

          “Practically everyone” is not an exaggeration; if not directly, indirectly for a lot of people, e.g. anyone with parents over 65, they have no choice but to be in Medicare.

          And let me actually cite Gary North on a relevant moral point: he says the greatest sin of social democracies is sundering the bonds inside families:

          Children don’t have to worry about supporting their parents in their old age in the old fashioned way since “the government” will. Parents who buy into this don’t need to do the old fashioned things that built the bonds that motivated their children to do so when they become old and relatively helpless. (And heaven help the PRC with it’s 4-2-1 problem due to the one child per family policy: 1 child supporting 2 parents supporting 4 grandparents.)

          This is true even for most of “the rich”, all too many of whom are making an implicit all in bet on the future value of the US dollar.

          The Democrats changed a lot of the social contract in an unsustainable way. The cited article’s thesis is that it’s likely to be terminally ugly for them when that plays out.

      • AndyN says:

        You seem to have completely missed my point about big money in partisan politics. I wasn’t talking about buying votes or buying the exposure that gets votes, I was speaking specifically about the likelihood that one of the major parties is going to disappear. As long as there’s money to be made by people working for or within one of the parties, they’re not going to let the party go away. Even if the party becomes ideologically or electorally insignificant, as long as they can keep fleecing donors and lining their own pockets in the name of campaigning, they’ll keep the party machinery humming along.

        I won’t dispute that we’re so close to plummeting off the fiscal cliff that there might not be anything that can save America, but I think that the Democratic party is likely to survive as long as the US does.

        • Harold says:

          You say:

          as long as they can keep fleecing donors

          Which I thought I addressed above with:

          If they can’t win elections, who’s going to indefinitely continue sending them money?

          And this is most certainly in the context of our “plummeting off the fiscal cliff“.

          • AndyN says:

            If they can’t win elections, who’s going to indefinitely continue sending them money?

            Tell that to the people of Wisconsin. Utter electoral failure, substantial lack of support for failed social and economic policy, tons of money pouring in to try to buy lipstick for the pig. They’re the explicit party of free ice cream, and as long as they can run ads saying that the other guys are taking away your free ice cream (whether or not it’s true) someone will keep writing them checks.

            • Harold says:

              The free ice cream is still generally flowing in Wisconsin, I’m talking about what happens after that entirely ends.

              And they’ve scored some successes in the state legislature, they even have control of the State Senate. Pity it won’t meet until after the next election….

  5. Patrick H says:

    I think grassroots anger is a great way of putting it. From everything I’ve seen, they lean Republican, and have libertarian elements, but there are so many varied beliefs held by Tea Partiers that putting a label on them is tough.

  6. Andy B. says:

    . . .”following Gary North I’m now calling it the Great Default. . .

    Not to digress, but citing Gary North during a discussion of “what is libertarian?” sort of illustrates a fundamental problem.

    • Harold says:

      That’s rather irrelevant when I’m merely citing him to give him proper credit for creating (or recognizing and using) such a great phrase.

      He’s also got plenty of libertarian facets, he’s certainly an ally against our overweening government. The sort of guy who’s authored books with titles like Government by Emergency, cover illustration two fascist looking cops with High Standard Model 10s (!).

      Whatever happened to the Model 10 concept? High Standard’s version had too many bugs according to Wikipedia, but surely some of them could have been worked out….

      • Andy B. says:

        “. . .he’s certainly an ally against our overweening government. . .”

        But, exactly as I first mentioned, being an opponent of this government does not mean being an opponent of the worst features of government as a concept. Look into North’s background and what you’ll find is that he’s an advocate for his own concept of government; he’s one of the poster-boys for Christian Reconstructionism, a.k.a. the Christian Taliban.

        Someone who wants to crush our present power structure, only to impose a power structure of their own, is not a “libertarian” in my book. But alas, such debates can go on forever.

      • Sebastian says:

        I had no idea who Gary North was, but from his Wikipedia page:

        Rousas John Rushdoony, one of the founders of Christian Reconstructionism, was North’s father-in-law, and North is a Christian Reconstructionist. The Institute for Christian Economics[12] published many Christian Reconstructionist books online. Christian Reconstructionists are also presuppositionalists in their approach to Christian apologetics as taught in modern Calvinism, and oppose natural law theory as a basis for civil law order.

        That doesn’t sound like someone who is going to be an ally in the cause of limited government.

        • asdf says:

          Gary North is an ally in the cause of limited *central* government, which is the traditional “old school” libertarian view, before “libertarianism” was known as such. But he’s a horrible writer. He writes short sentences. Like this. Kinda stucatto like. It’s really annoying. Just read one of his articles. No commas or anything. Just short sentences. Like this.

          But he is an authentic gold bug, which earns him a place in the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell/Mises camp.

          • Sebastian says:

            I’m kind of a big fan of the 14th Amendment. I have relatively little concern whether the jackboot is worn by federal authority or state authority…. and when the states had a lot of sovereignty on the matter of rights, they didn’t have a great track record. I like the idea of checks on state powers when it comes to respecting rights.

            • asdf says:

              And that right there is the main difference between the libertarian camps.

            • Andy B. says:

              I am reasonably convinced that the motive behind a lot of decentralist argument lies with the people of the Christian Reconstructionist or Dominionist persuasion. Recognizing that they are not likely to have much success in imposing their “Seven Mountains” (Google it) agenda on the United States as a whole, thanks to the SCOTUS, the 14th Amendment, and diversity, they propagandize for policies that would allow them to break off little pieces where they can operated unfettered by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights; ironically they spend a great deal of time lauding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, while at the same time maintaining that they don’t mean what the SCOTUS has said they mean. (Note for example that there is a great deal of cross-fertilization between Reconstructionism/Dominionism and the Neo-Confederate movement.)

              I instinctively favor decentralism, but there came a point that I had to admit that I liked the concepts for that same reason; the assumption that there would be created some little political niches where the things I believe would prevail. But then I realized authoritarians of every stripe were far better positioned to take over, almost everywhere. So now, I may not know the answer, but I’ll hold my tongue until I’m sure of whose interests I’m campaigning for.

  7. Ken says:

    It’s somewhat ironic for libertarians to complain that they can’t pin down the Tea Party’s positions, when it is so hard for many of us to pin down libertarians’ positions.

    Take, for example, Bill Maher, who calls himself a libertarian. Obviously he isn’t really one, since he supports gun control and a number of other leftist causes. But libertarians are wrong to just write him off as a fake, because in fact he has called himself a libertarian for decades and has supported gun control for decades, and was seldom called on it until gun control became unpopular in the early 2000s. In fact, many politicians were described as being “libertarian” based on “social issues” (more on that phrase in a moment), even though they were even less so than the average corrupt politician. Rudolph Giuliani not only supported gun control, but increased police powers in NYC–yet based on his support for abortion and gay rights, he was labelled as being from the “libertarian wing” of the GOP, and the libertarian movement tacitly went along with the label. Bill Maher doesn’t call himself libertarian because he’s intentionally lying; he’s using the term as it was commonly used–incorrectly–when he was just getting started.

    Let’s not forget, all of you libertarians who complain about the GOP’s focus on social issues, that it wasn’t that long ago that gun control was considered a social issue. As recently as 2008, Richard Posner, in his blog, listed gun control as one of the issues favored by more “libertarian” Republicans–presumably as opposed to those Republicans in the NRA who want to use the power of the state to deny the ATF its natural right to burn American citizens alive.

    Now, I’m quite well aware that there is a fundamental difference between gun control–which I obviously oppose–and both abortion (which I oppose) and gay rights (which I support). In the former case, the “right wing” side opposes government action, whereas in the latter two cases the “right wing” side supports it. (Note, however, that in the case of abortion, at least, the left wing also supports government action, i.e., federal funding of abortions. Even in the case of gay rights, the left supports anti-discrimination laws).

    However, the fact that someone as anti-liberty as Maher could once have been accepted as a libertarian implies that the libertarian movement is doing something wrong. Specifically, libertarians tend to assume that every little victory against government action is a gain, while failing to have a larger view of the kind of society they want to establish.

    In my not-so-humble opinion, that society would be essentially a Lockeian state, in which every property owner would be essentially autonomous, and the state’s legitimacy would be widely seen as resting not on its total number of votes, but on its willingness to respect the rights of each citizen to life, liberty, and property.

    This would have the effect of setting priorities for libertarians. Clearly gun rights and self-defense would be at the top of the list of priorities. Ending the drug war would also be a priority, not because it’s so fun to get high, but because it would be considered tyrannical to invade one’s property over a victimless crime. Also a priority would be a drastic reduction of federal ownership of land; this would allow many poor people who currently rent homes to become property owners with a stake in the society.

    OTOH, issues like (privately-funded) access to pornography would be less important than they are now. Libertarians would obviously very strongly oppose any War on Porn that interfered with the right to have it in one’s home, but they’d be less and less inclined to have a cow about it at each higher level of societal organization. For instance, while libertarians might object to a publicly owned street in the first place, they wouldn’t put a whole lot of effort into keeping pornography off it, even though they’d be on record as supporting your right to have porn anywhere you wanted.

    • Andy B. says:

      A lot of what you are addressing is a result of Americans being unfamiliar with anything, left, right, or otherwise, that approaches being based on some consistent philosophy; everything they’ve ever known has consisted of laundry-lists of not-necessarily-related likes and dislikes. So, if a Bill Maher or a Gary North scores a few hits on what someone recalls as being libertarian positions, presto, they must be libertarians. The fact that everything else they believe may be totally anti-liberty does not strike anyone as very important.

      I used to think that the Libertarian Party pledge regarding not advocating the use of force to achieve political or social goals was a little sappy, and I guess I still do; but it did have merit in that anyone who took the time to consider their beliefs, relative to the pledge, should have been aware of their conflicts.

    • Exurbankevin says:

      if only Libertarians were more conformist. That’d make pigeonholing them SO much easier! :)

  8. Wes says:

    The Tea Party maybe could have been considered libertarian (small L) when it was first started by Ron Paul supporters, (yes, it was, look it up), but the Tea Party’s main issues were big tent things like lower taxes, spend less money, and accountability. And then it got hijacked and turned into a lot of Bible thumping and policing the world.

    The big-government neocons hijacked a lot of the Tea Party, and now it looks like they are trying to throw it away.

    Speaking of the end of the Democratic Party, today or yesterday Limbaugh and Ingram both said things about if Romney doesn’t win, shut the party down, it’s the end of the Republican Party. Limbaugh said a new, more conservative party would spring up.

    Now the “we need to nominate Romney” people are seeing what others saw long ago. Romney can’t beat Obama. Ron Paul is the only one who could beat Obama. But so many people of the hijacked Tea Party and establishment and similar shut him down because they just couldn’t bear to not spend trillions of dollars policing the world.

    And now we will have another four years of Obama. Way to go.

    • Alpheus says:

      You’re writing off Romney a little too quickly; that, and I’m not entirely convinced that Ron Paul could have beat Romney. After all, he couldn’t make it through the nomination process!

      That said, I don’t necessarily expect Romney to be the Great Savior; I just hope he can set the stage to preserve our rights.

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