Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Real Message of the Tea Party Movement

Like OCCUPY WALL STREET, the Tea Party started out as a gathering of citizens expressing more or less vaguely a strongly emotional sense of dissatisfaction with how things are going.
Personally, I still find the message of the Tea Party a little bit less than clear.  It feels to me like they want to debate philosophy, in general, rather than specific choices that need to be made, in the context of the lives we live today.  My problem with that is we all pretty much share the same philosophy.  The devil is in the details.
One detail that does seem to bedevil the Tea Party is taxes.  They just don't want to pay taxes.
Who does?
But if we want to live in an ordered society, we have to pay the cost of maintaining order.  So, we all have to pay our taxes.
Let’s start with a quote from a British Philosopher of Revolutionary Times, Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes is famous for many things, including his quote that goes something liek this:  “Life in a State of Nature is nasty, brutish and – above all – short.”
His point, as I take it, is that we choose to live in civilized society, even though doing so contrains our freedoms, more or less, because the life we live together is so much better than any life we could live, if we all had to live it all on our own.
That resonates. 
We choose to live in a society of shared economics and shared politics in order to build a public quality of life that provides the context within which each of us can then build for ourselves the private life that suits us best, all things considered.
Public life is not free, and quality does not come cheap.  We need rules to regulate commerce, and we need government to enforce those rules.
Government comes at a cost, and that cost is paid through taxes.  There is no other way.
To say you don’t want taxes, is to say you don’t want government.  To say you don’t want government is to say you don’t want to live in a civilized society.
I don’t hear the Tea Party advocates really saying they want that.  They are not Anarchists.  They value order, just as we all do.  And I think they know that order comes at a price.
I think what they are trying to say, but cannot find the words to express themselves correctly, is that they want order, but not oppression.
There, they have a point.
The truth is that government is about rules, and rules have to be enforced.  So, with government, we get bureaucracy.  Bureaucracies have a remarkable ability to perpetuate themselves, and to expand their field of influence.  This is not always a good thing.  The choices a bureaucracy makes when acting in its own self-interest are not necessarily always also in the best interest of the people whose choices are being constrained by that bureaucracy.  Sometimes, there is a disconnect.
So, when I hear the Tea Party protesting “taxed enough already”, what I hear them really saying is that to them, there is a disconnect.  Government is not working right.  Not by them.
Fair enough.  We’re all in this together.  We have to build a consensus, and that takes compromise.  Let’s talk about that.
But let’s be practical.  The devil is in the details, so let’s get down to the details.  And let’s not forget that what we are really discussing are the details of the public context in which we all want to live out our private lives.  And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that somehow, magically, we can each enjoy the private lives we want to live, without also participating publicly in the public life that makes our private choices possible. 
That’s just not practical.

1 comment:

  1. I love how clearly and even-handedly you've lain things out.

    About the cost of enjoying our private lives being participation in our public lives: 'participation' hints at financial contributions, but couldn't some of that participation be direct civic action? Sometimes our time is more valuable than money. In addition to lowering the cash expense of (admittedly valuable) bureaucracy, it builds bonds between community members which facilitate democratic decision making. It has limitations, of course (certainly we want to rely on professionals), but perhaps civic organization could have some answers for both these movements.