Friday, September 24, 2010

How to listen to the Tea Party message--Part 1

In the recent primaries some candidates associated with the Tea Party movement won places in the November elections. They describe their electoral victories as "taking back the government" or "restoring American freedoms by working for a smaller government." These candidates are responding to a widespread feeling that the government has become too big, too powerful and thereby limits the freedom of individual citizens.

Their claims are widely rejected as confused and ill thought out, if not positively loony. But it is a mistake not to take the Tea Party very seriously.

The Tea Party anarchists raise a complaint that we have heard many times before, that our government has become paternalistic, that it interposes itself in situations where it does not belong: a few years ago Congress passed a law forbidding teachers to post students grades on their office door. Does the federal government have a place in the relation between teacher and student? For several years, seat belt laws and laws mandating wearing motorcycle helmets caused a great deal of controversy. Many consumer goods are plastered with government mandated stickers telling you not to step on the top step of the ladder, not to do this, or not to do that. Many citizens feel that government bureaucrats treat us like witless children.

And now, of course, there is the health overhaul bill which demands that every citizen buy health insurance, whether they want to or not.

If we reject as silly or inappropriate the complaints about a government, whose demands and control are everywhere,  we miss a very serious underlying problem: we live in an immensely complicated world that requires a lot of regulation in order to function smoothly. Regulations are made by an army of regulators whom we may well resent.

Our world is interconnected in complex ways. We are no longer living on isolated homesteads where we consume only what we produce. In that world, if we needed some goods not directly available -- salt, guns, --we entered some sort of barter arrangement with our neighbors. Money was not needed. Today we need money and a banking system.

On the frontier, the settlers invested their physical energy, their ingenuity and a lot of hard work to sustain themselves. If you want to be a business owner today you need capital up front to get you started and tide you over the initial period when your profits are slim. Our banking system must not only facilitate trade through money but it must also accumulate capital to lend out to entrepreneurs.

These financial systems need rules to be followed by all, if they are going to be effective. As financial systems become more complex there are more opportunities for malfunction -- as we are seeing at present. The system needs regulation and there must be protection for the system’s users in case of crisis.

A system of self-sufficient farmers may be attractive from the point of view of personal liberty, but it provides a poor and harsh living. Wealth begins to flow when people specialize. The division of labor increases output but it also makes everyone dependent on every one else.  Now I do only one job. Since I do that very well, I am very productive but I need to buy most of what I consume from other producers. That requires a highly complex system of transportation. The government makes essential contributions to that.

When trade is of the essence to supply everyone’s needs, an effective legal system is needed to cover the different contractual relations the economy requires. What is more, the laws governing trade must be enforced. The system requires a system of  investigators and prosecutors, of courts, judges and lawyers to smooth the millions of daily transactions.

Only 3% of Americans still work and live on farms. We have become a largely urbanized nation. We live on top of each other and are therefore more exposed to epidemics. Proper garbage disposal is important for public health. Street maintenance is a serious problem and so is public safety. Urban living is impossible without government services and government supervision.
We live well because our society is very complicated. The Tea Party protests remind us of a serious problem we face. There is a real conflict between running a modern, highly complex, highly technological society and individual liberty. When we laugh at Tea Party candidates, we are in danger of overlooking that problem.

Most Americans set a high value on individual liberty and self-reliance. But the individual, staunch self-reliance of our forefathers is no longer available to us in a society where our lives are dependent on the work of others and the goods they produce. As long as most people were self-employed and owned land to grow their own food, they were not really dependent on others, on money, on borrowed capital, on a system of transport, on a legal system, the courts and lawyers. They lived relatively isolated on the prairie. We did not need a government to protect us against system malfunctions or to protect us against our neighbors.

We must also admit that we have become less staunch in our desire for independence. If the homestead burned down or was destroyed by a tornado our ancestors rebuilt if they could or else moved on, or perhaps perished miserably. Today, liberals and conservatives alike demand that the government assist the victims of Katrina or of the recent oils spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the government that is asked to  help us out in life’s crises will also be present, looking over our shoulder the rest of the time.

The price of that protection is very high. The tea parties are aware of that. We need to listen to that warning even if we, and they, don't have at the moment have any clear idea of how to deal with these threats to our liberty.