Libertarians and the Tea Party — Back Off

I have to take issue with my former Cato colleague Dan Mitchell and Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, someone who I agree with on many issues. Like them I want to see the cost of government curtailed and agree that we shouldn’t live at the expense of future generations. We would no doubt disagree on the priorities for government – I believe in a greater welfare role – but even so on the issue of reducing government we are on the same side.

But I part company with them on whether the Tea Party movement is a net plus for America. Steve and Dan maintain that it is a good thing on the grounds that “there is a growing mass of citizens who think it’s important to restrain government.”  They are prepared to overlook the fact that like any mass movement it has a “few odd characters.” Steve admits in a recent column that his first impression of the movement was: “It’s a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn’t firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.”

But his second impression is that “we are lucky to have them.”

I am afraid I can’t overlook “the strain of intolerance and xenophobia.” I can’t overlook the “Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes.” And I think it highly dangerous for libertarians, economic conservatives and small-government Democrats (yes, there are some out there) to do so. You can be for restraining government and fiscal responsibility without aligning with the Tea Party – it isn’t an either/or proposition.

American libertarians have had a tendency in the past to feel that they can ignore the racial blots and social authoritarianism of those who share their limited government/fiscal responsibility positions. It ends in tears though. Should limiting government and curtailing expenditure be more important to a libertarian or smaller government advocate than anything else, than, say, civil liberties? Surely not. The importance of both of those is intertwined with a respect for the individual, with a yearning for individual liberty, with an openness to other cultures and races or as Reason magazine’s tag would have it, “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

This tendency to overlook the bad has a lot to do with aligning with those who might be able to carry out part of the libertarian agenda. The GOP may win control of Capitol Hill in the fall, so let’s be nice to them. Libertarians formed an alliance with the Gingrich Republicans but didn’t get much out of that except Health Savings Accounts. Out of George W. Bush they got a foeign policy they were appalled out, civil liberty abuses that shocked them and the economic nonsense of Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter.”

Similar disappointment awaits them if they carry on flirting with the Tea Party. Brink Lindsay, a former Cato scholar, was right to look to the left for more appropriate allies but alas Washington DC libertarians didn’t follow.

2 thoughts on “Libertarians and the Tea Party — Back Off

  1. One of the themes in your post seems to be that we Libertarians can’t cooperate with others without accepting or endorsing all of their views (pls correct me if I’m wrong). I think this is a ridiculous argument. The fact is, there isn’t a group of more than 3 people in the world that are unanimous on every issue. Therefore, the strategy in politics must be to form coalitions on single issues to change them one at a time.

    If disagreeing on other important issues means that we cannot cooperate with Tea Party people on the issue of smaller, less restrictive government, then we may as well disband the Libertarian party right now – because there is not a single issue, big or small, on which we all agree.

    I’m so grateful that the leaders in World War II did not hold this view. They cooperated with the Soviet Union, knowing full well what a monstrous totalitarian horror it was. They did it to win the war; they did it because they knew that non-cooperation would only serve the immediate enemy: the Nazis. In our case, non-cooperation with the Tea Party groups only serves to push us further down the slope into fiscal madness and the increasingly authoritarian policies of the Obama administration.

    Go ahead and be an army of one. Call us when you want to get something done. You’ll know where to find us – we will be out with the Tea Party working to shrink government, and at the same time, we’ll be encouraging any Birchers, Birthers and Islamophobes to change their minds on those issues.

  2. Well, good for you. Try to change their minds. And no, I don’t suggest in anyway that libertarians can’t have alliances with others. From my point of view, just not the Tea Party because I don’t think they understand the US Constitution or appreciate it, nor are they really serious about individual liberty. I think the leaders of the Tea Party, like the Republican leaders in the past, are merely using libertarian rhetoric. More fool you for trusting them.

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