Of tea parties and tyranny

There are many things wrong with what James is trying to say in this post.  I will try to tackle a few of them.  The meat of the post, which is also the part most riddled with odd suppositions and strangely drawn conclusions, is as follows:

The tea partiers, in insisting that economic policy derives from and reflects political principles, and not the other way around, help make this clear. Take taxes. When taxes are too many and too high, the economy suffers. But, as this decade has brutally taught us, taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it. The evil of taxes is not primarily economic but political. When a government learns how to use taxes to coerce, control, and manage the behavior of its citizens, a country is placed on a perilous road — not to serfdom, necessarily, but to tyranny, a tyranny that lords over even the rich and famous, even when they happen to profit from its favor. The GOP is supposed to keep this kind of tyranny at bay, and when it comes near, the GOP is supposed to ward it off.

It’s in this regard that, over the past ten years, the GOP has failed. The trouble with RINOs is that, in their liberalism, they are often either blind to the threat of tyranny or they do not really see it as a problem. This is not because they ‘fail to understand the nature’ of tyranny. Tyrannical regimes can rule over dynamic, exciting societies, over huge numbers of people full of promise and purpose. They can focus resources on big challenges and execute amazing feats of efficiency and publicity. Just ask the growing number of American commentators suffering from China envy.

Three things are mistaken here.

First, that “taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it” strikes me as a very odd thing to assert n the context of the past decade.  While taxes may indeed aggrandize the state, how James can reach this conclusion after a period in which tax rates have been at historical lows is beyond me.  If anything, the past decade has revealed the state’s capacity to endlessly borrow in order to pay for the spending that Republicans and Democrats alike cannot seem to cut back.

And while taxes can indeed be corrosive to liberty and used to coerce citizens and distort the natural economy and a whole host of other abuses, they can also be used for legitimate purposes – though no two people can agree on what those purposes may be.  I assume James approves of our tax dollars going to our national defense, for instance, but perhaps not toward national healthcare.  Calling this tyranny without explaining why it is tyranny is mostly unsatisfying, especially coming from someone who can certainly think past such trite assertions.

The notion that RINO’s are blind to said tyranny or do not perceive it as a problem is on similarly weak footing.  Since tyranny here has only been vaguely defined to begin with, it is difficult to understand exactly how these Republicans In Name Only – of which I would surely be one if I were registered to vote Republican – can be accused of such blindness or apathy.  Until this supposed tyranny can be tangibly defined, I have a hard time taking this seriously at all. Unless we are to fall back on old anti-Soviet tropes, of course.  One man’s tyranny is another man’s bulwark against social decline, and vice versa.

And last I checked the “growing number of American commentators suffering China envy” numbers at one Tom Friedman.

James loses me entirely here, however:

Moreover, liberals of any party seeking primarily to foster or facilitate cultural change typically have little desire to focus their attention, much less their careers, on preventing the government from aggrandizing itself. A government that routinely manages economic behavior through its economic policy is well able to routinely manage social and personal behavior that way. In theory, there’s no reason why lots of Republicans can’t be ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative.’ In practice, social liberals, of any party, have a vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.

This is a preposterous thing to say.  Perhaps I’m biased since I’m “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” myself (I know, the first step toward RINOism!) but I think that statements such as this only function if politics is truly a linear field, if “socially liberal” or “socially conservative” can only be defined in the narrowest of terms.  (My own socially liberal positions I have framed in conservative terms, but that is neither here nor there.)  After all, social conservatism used to include a belief that black people were inferior to whites.  Unless, of course, you were one of those radical religious abolitionists. Or, in other words, such distinctions are useless except as darts to be thrown at the other team, or walls to be erected around your own.  Which is what James is doing with this post, of course – picking sides, distancing himself from the RINO’s and the liberal conservatives, heaping praise on the tea parties and so forth.

Furthermore, not only “social liberals” but anyone with a stake in maintaining power has a “vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.”  Does James really believe that conservatives are so benign as to not use economic policy as a means of political control? I have a hard time believing that.  Nor can I quite reproduce the lines drawn between social liberalism and economic control that James infers. We are forced to take such claims at face value.  I find this about as likely as Sullivan’s assertions over the threat of Christianism – which is to say not very.

Prosperity itself seems to be the primary culprit behind the threat of the Pink Police State which James has written about previously – and which, I assume, is the vision of tyranny he alludes to above (or something like it).  With prosperity comes a longer leash on our temptations, the purchasing power to succumb to them, the atomization required to shed our traditional social mores – but temptations defy political cliques. Nor can we ever snuff them out entirely, though many have tried.  And thus we must shape society not so much to resist them but to protect against their worst effects.  That seems like a worthy goal of social conservatives and liberals alike.

James rallies toward the end, offering up some smart points about the tea parties and the empty promises of the Republican leadership of yesteryear.  I am not exactly anti-tea-party myself, though I do find the inconsistencies of the movement distracting and disheartening, and at times I admit to a bit of cynicism and black humor over the whole thing.  In that sense, James has some important things to say.  The meat of this post, however, leaves an ashy taste.

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26 thoughts on “Of tea parties and tyranny

  1. What’s the problem with falling back on old anti-Soviet tropes?

    You’ve read about the gulag we’ve got going on, no? The bodies we’ve buried? The bodies we’ve shipped back to families without particular organs? The refusal of subsequent leadership to so much as give a speech against “the cult of personality” the previous leadership had going on (“At least Khrushchev…”)?

    To whom are you most willing to offer the benefit of the doubt? Why?

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  2. This is the worst sort of Randism.

    Okay, I am not a conservative, so I naturally don’t agree with his sentiment. But I’ve started writing a few comments already and I’m still not quite sure what to say. Taxes equal tyranny? Hardly. Tyranny is tyranny. Perhaps Mr. Poulos should visit Burma if he is unaware of the difference. Social liberals want to manage peoples’ personal behavior? I’m no fan of the nanny state myself, but it’s not unreasonable to regulate certain things that have negative impacts on others. Drawing the line is always tough, but that’s just because it has to be tough. There are no shortcuts, only tradeoffs. And cop-outs.

    So what do we have here? Just another first-world white guy moaning about how oppressed he is. Sure. This is just another example of the extreme moral confusion at the core of today’s conservatism–confusion so profound it seems to have infiltrated the conservative intelligentsia as well.

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    • Boy oh boy, is THIS reply ever going to be way off topic. But since you’re bringing up Randism…

      I would love it if E.D., or Lev, or anyone, would do a thread on Randism that would encourage its proponents to discuss their attraction. (Or has it already been done and I’ve missed it?)

      I just finished both The Passion of… and Goddess of the Market, and I have to say I’m baffled. Her life, going from Bolshevik victim to cult tyrant, seems to have been a real-life playing out of Animal Farm. Some of her writings are just plain nutty. (e.g: The admiration of the serial killer who has the power and intelligence not to be shackled by society’s mores; or the victims of a terrorist bombing of a train deserved what they got because they wanted higher taxes that led to someone deciding to be a terrorist.) I haven;t read any of her books since college, but I remember them as neither poorly or remarkably well written. I can’t believe that there are that many people who buy into her theory that only a few people deserve good things, and everyone else should go fuck themselves.

      But she is everywhere, and a lot of her proponents seem intelligent… I would love to hear why they love her so.

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  3. A great deal of verbiage, some of it florid above and beyond the call of duty, but all of it failing to identify what has been so thoroughly disappointing in matters economic about the Republican Congressional caucus, their counterparts in statehouses, and the erstewhile President. The problem is not ‘tryanny’, but ‘pluralistic stagnation’, in which economic life is perverted and rendered sclerotic by the construction of patron-client relations: the tax breaks, the regulatory capture, the crappy public works projects. We need Republican politicos who respect private enterprise and markets, not slogans about private enterprise and markets, and who are willing and able to be energetic about reconstructing a proper set of state-society relations rather than using the existing set to shake down hapless businessmen.

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  4. Bah! All that is the traditional human blather: “My opponents (as I define them) are Eeeeevil and want to do terrible things, unlike my fellow Only True Believers, who wish only to do those same things but for the good of everyone and therefore in a way that leads eventually to a land of milk and cookies for all. It really doesn’t matter how you define “your side”‘s busy-body-ness; it’s the same thing as the “other side”‘s busy-body-ness. It’s all about making people behave the way you think they ought to. Even that deluded simpleton Ayn Rand was driven by that urge, despite her turgid proselytizing about “self-determination” and such. What is her life’s work other than a call for everybody else to stop being mean to people she thinks she likes? Always reminds me of one of my favorite sayings: “Everybody’s so selfish – they never think about MEEEEEE!”

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  5. I suspect I mostly agree with James on substance, but Erik is right on the specific complaints: James’ various trains of thought about tyranny, taxes, or RINOs aren’t persuasive and he should use these words a little more carefully than he does.

    Having said that, let me take a stab at why “fiscally conservative, but socially liberal” doesn’t work (and to be fair some credit has to go to James’ theory of the Pink Police State). First of all, the immediate crisis in the industrialized world is the crisis of sovereignty. As time passes without dramatic confrontations regarding sovereignty, the welfare state Establishment insulates itself further and further from any measure of accountability. The activism of a fiscal conservative is, in theory at least, an assertion of sovereignty against the Establishment, but the social liberal isn’t. When push comes to shove, an actual fiscal conservative has to confront entrenched cultural powers. Our fiscal conservative/socially liberal protagonist has no real desire to antagonize such people, therefore he folds. The cultural Establishment is happy to concede his social liberalism, that’s where their inclinations are anyway. The upshot is, a fiscal conservative/social liberal is essentially a person of any political persuasion who has acquiesced to the ballooning welfare state without specifically endorsing the metaphysical assumptions behind it.

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    • Perhaps you have not heard because you are not listening? The term ‘rent seeking’ is customarily used to describe businessmen or unions adding to their utility by taking advantage of institutional arrangements in such a way as the quantum of goods and services produced is less than it otherwise would be. It is very seldom used to describe mass categories (e.g. ‘the old’) who benefit from public expenditure. (Even if your characterization of the views of most of the people who attend these events were accurate).

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      • ” It is very seldom used to describe mass categories”

        Of course, ‘seldom’ doesn’t mean ‘never’. I took the characterization as a rhetorical extension. Nothing wrong with that, I’d think. As for bailouts and tea partiers, well, how about this:

        Michigan Tea Partiers Boycott Detroit Auto Show Protest

        The Michigan Messenger reported Michigan tea partier and ex-GM employee Joan Fabiano’s Facebook posting urging her fellow protesters to stay away:

        “In conclusion it is my opinion that this protest is ill-conceived and quite frankly an attempt at attention grabbing grand standing by those outside and unfortunately inside of Michigan. … Why must some Americans boycott G.M. and throw INNOCENT people, such as myself, out on the street trying to find another job in this economy? Did I do something wrong? Would you like to see yourself out of a job if your company’s leadership made the errors and you had NOTHING to do with it?”

        As the Messenger reported, Fabiano, like most tea partiers, is opposed to the government bailouts of banks and the so-called “out of control spending” in D.C.. But when it comes to General Motors and Chrysler — two companies bought out by the government in the depths of the economic downturn — Fabiano said the protest could hurt the business climate in the one of the worst states for unemployment in the country.

        Government bailouts for me, but not for thee. ‘Rent seeking’ as a characterization doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

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  6. http://www.mwilliams.info/archive/2008/03/americas-high-corporate-tax-rate.php

    corporate taxes are passed along to consumers, thus creating a hidden tax. As our obligations for SS, Medicare grow with babyboomers retiring, I’ll check back with everyone in ten years. Many people who are invested in rationalizing and protecting our government and the failed policies from harsh criticism are not thinking clearly about developing storm. Yes, taxes are necessary to fund a limited government which protects our borders, polices the streets and settles disputes in courts, but what James is talking about is the government we actually have — we’ve got to move past the theories of enlightened governance and accept the reality of what’s actully practiced if we’re ever going to survive collapse.

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  7. Tea partiers live in the now. They know how shaky the whole gummint house of cards is and don’t want to have a collapse by adding more and more socialist programs. We can differentiate further if you’d like but why?

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  8. So E.D. Ought health care legislation be stopped dead in its tracks after the Brown win? That is a clear promise he made in the campaign (though procedurally he can’t necessarily stop it himself). But many Democrats are saying that the result shouldn’t be ignored and that HCR should be halted. You supported Brown. You supported this (not just any) health care reform. Where do you stand?

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  9. Sadly the example above isn’t just ‘one tea partier on facebook’ You could find literally countless examples like this. As much as some might like to deny it, those are indeed representative of the movement. I know that the more intellectually minded like to think there is some deeper philosophical revolution driving it but it really is just another instance of identity politics. I was recently talking to my mother, a Glenn Beck acolyte, about health care and after she railed against the notion of public healthcare and how the private sector was better in so many ways I simply asked her, a recent retiree, if she then intended to send back her social security checks and opt out of Medicare to pursue a private plan. She sputtered and said of course not. Sam is right when he says “Government bailouts for me, but not for thee” because of course tea partiers are self interested. I mean duh. They are human and humans are not about “what is good?” but “What is good for me?”. Tea partiers don’t believe in ‘taxed enough already’ any more then they do ‘Just Do It’ or ‘Calgon, take me away.’ There are good arguments on the limits of taxation but the tea parties aren’t the place to look for them. Tea parties are about identity, not a political philosophy. And the core of that identity is the idea of the government is your enemy, out to take all your hard and fairly earned money and give it to no good freeloaders of whatever ethnic/social/political group you happen to feel most bigoted against.

    When you see the tea partiers talking about issues and why they think health care is bad. (as one example) It is never about the issue of why is health care a poor use of government funds and a new missile program isn’t. It is never about the substance of what should a government fund and what it shouldn’t, it is just the same old tired Randian rhetoric of government is bad and corrupt and free markets are magic. This kind of vapid campaign motto discourse is why I can’t take the tea partiers seriously. Of course most people are too busy living their lives to bother with the nuances of political theory, and that is why identity politics exist. To give people something to attach themselves to with 2 minutes of thought instead of spending 10 years trying to muddle through a political ideology. The hope is that the leaders of these movements that people have attached themselves too actually have spent the time to think things through but right now the tea party has no such leaders and because of that more closely resembles a pitchfork wielding mob then a political movement. Unless they develop some well defined focus and some leaders emerge they will flame out and be lucky to register as a Wikipedia footnote somewhere in the distant future.

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    • This is amazing. You give a vapid analysis of the “tea party” in an attempt to show their opposition is vapid. You covered every media cliche regarding the “tea party” — congratulations. I’ll bet you have no personal knowledge regarding the nature of the tea party participants, and, obviously, you haven’t thought beyond the “tea party” to take into account the widespread opposition to progressivism which was indicated in the Massachusetts election. You guys continue to miss the bigger picture. Some of us have been saying for a long time that this opposition movement is greater than the “tea party” painted by the media — the opposition is diverse, deep and widespread. I just wrote a post at my blog regarding the fact that 25% of eligible voters doesn’t create a mandate. What you’re witnessing is the political activation of the 130 million or so voters who haven’t participated before.

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    • It is shabby of you to take the opportunity to trash your mother.

      Your mother’s financial planning has likely been undertaken over a period of decades with certain assumptions about the presence or absence of public benefits. Any sort of noodling about with benefits for the elderly properly done needs take account of the fact that the elderly have very limited ability to adjust to abrupt changes in their real income. All of which is to say that benefits need to be phased out cohort by cohort over a period of decades.

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  10. Eh, I know you are reacting defensively because that is how people react when there identities come under fire. Again that is nothing more then identity politics. And I have seen quite a bit of these tea party gatherings and protests and 90% of the time they are simply a hodge podge of anti-government, anti-immigration, don’t take my guns complaint fests. There is no unifying goal which is my entire point. As long as tea parties are just an excuse for disparate groups that are angry with the government for one reason or another to get together and gripe it will go nowhere.

    As for Massachusetts, every election the winner claims it is a new mandate, and the changing of the world and a rebuttal of whatever was there before. Dems were saying the same thing after Obama’s election. The Mass. election is no more an indicator of the countries swing toward conservatism then Obama’s election was indicative of a swing toward progressivism. These situations are nice to give warm fuzzies for which ever side won and makes the optimists there believe things are a’changin’ but rarely mean anything more substantial.

    Again, what do the tea partiers stand for? Who are their leaders? Until these questions get answered they are going to get about as far as the free love movement of 50 years ago did. You say that I use ‘media cliches’ to describe the tea parties but what the tea parties represent will be determined by those of the movement then get out on the streets and protest, not by what intellectuals are going to blog about. And right now the people on the street aren’t the deep and diverse group you are wanting to say the movement is. It’s the birthers and death panelers. If people like yourself want the tea party movement to be a revolutionary mandate on fiscal responsibility then those are the type of people that need to be out there carrying signs and doing interviews. As long as that responsibility is left to birthers and the ‘Obama is Stalin’ crowd then like it or not that is going to be the face of your movement.

    As for the weak swipe by Art, I don’t trash my mother. We get along great and can discuss politics civilly even when in disagreement. But like her as I may, when people say that government programs all amount to ‘evil socialism’ on one hand while refusing to give up those very same programs that benefit them on the other, it is hypocritical at best. Among all these people claiming that government health care is just a horrible thing where are all the ones calling for the abolishment of Medicare and other programs? Even in a gradual manner that takes into consider people current situations? Of course they are no where to be found because it really does boil down to ‘health care for me, but not for thee’.

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    • Eh, I know you are reacting defensively because that is how people react when there identities come under fire. Again that is nothing more then identity politics.

      You talkin’ to me?

      when people say that government programs all amount to ‘evil socialism’ on one hand while refusing to give up those very same programs that benefit them on the other, it is hypocritical at best.

      There is nothing illegitimate about that position, for reasons I have just explained.

      Among all these people claiming that government health care is just a horrible thing where are all the ones calling for the abolishment of Medicare and other programs? Even in a gradual manner that takes into consider people current situations? Of course they are no where to be found because it really does boil down to ‘health care for me, but not for thee’.

      You need to cleanse yourself of the fancy that your adept at getting inside other people’s heads.

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