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The tea party will fail -- unless it fully embraces individualism as a moral ideal

The tea party's aim to restore America's founding ideals is commendable, but it still harbors the same moral impetus that's justified bigger government since the Progressive Era. To deliver on its promise to restore lost freedoms, the tea party must anchor its work in Ayn Rand's understanding that all schemes that sacrifice the individual to society are morally wrong.

By Thomas A. Bowden / January 21, 2011


They’re calling it the tea party Congress, and the new leadership is busy snipping earmarks, targeting Obamacare, and quoting the Constitution. But can they succeed where similar conservative backlashes have failed? Whatever your opinion of the whole tea party movement – and mine stops far short of blanket approval – you have to admit it has some interesting qualities that set it apart from conservative approaches of decades past.

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By idealistically venerating the founding fathers, the tea party avoids the kind of cynical pragmatism that reigned in Richard Nixon’s era. By steering clear of religiously divisive “social issues,” the tea party avoids the kind of attack on the Constitution’s separation of church and state that characterized Ronald Reagan’s era. And by stressing that both major political parties are guilty of expanding government power without apparent limit, the tea party breaks with the neoconservative, big-government Republicanism that held sway in George W. Bush’s era.

Entrenched thinking

All this has generated a refreshing “clean sweep” sensibility, consistent with a grass-roots movement of Americans who are sincerely focused on individual freedom – and frustrated at the futility of past efforts to combat the seemingly unstoppable encroachment by government power. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine the tea party making good on its promise to permanently restore some of our freedom. But with eyes wide open, I see a movement imperiled by the same entrenched thinking that has driven government’s growth for more than a century.

One side of the divided tea-party mentality (its “right brain,” so to speak) recoils from the cumulative impact of government programs enacted over more than a century. In the wake of unprecedented “stimulus” spending, Wall Street bailouts, “Government Motors,” and Obamacare’s takeover of health insurance, the movement foresees economic ruin and diminished freedom for all Americans. To combat these evils, the tea party invokes America’s founding ideals of individual rights and limited government, and talks about cutting big government down to size.

Meanwhile, however, the tea party’s “left brain” harbors the same moral impetus that has justified bigger and bigger government since the Progressive Era. The basic idea is that some people’s needs constitute a moral claim on the lives and wealth of others. The list of needs is endless: economic stability, job security, housing, health care, retirement funds. To satisfy those needs, government concocts regulatory and wealth transfer schemes that coercively subject the individual to society. Over the years, each new program – from the Federal Reserve to Social Security, Medicare, and beyond – acquires an aura of moral dignity that renders it politically untouchable by later generations. The needs of others permanently displace the freedom of the individual.

Based on this conflict, my prognosis has the tea party headed for the political equivalent of an epileptic seizure.


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