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Opinion

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.

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Consider that the movement’s once-unanimous rallying cry of “Repeal Obamacare!” has already morphed into “repeal and replace,” so as to “retain some of its more popular provisions.” Indeed, even as House Republicans this week engineered a symbolic vote for repeal (which will be dead on arrival in the Senate), those same members of Congress are setting the stage to make many of Obamacare’s onerous provisions permanent.

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And then consider what programs would have to be dismantled just to return to that conservative nirvana, the Reagan era: the Americans with Disabilities Act (enacted under Bush I), State Health Insurance for Children (enacted under Clinton), as well as prescription drugs for seniors and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations penalizing all businessmen (both enacted under Bush II). Can you imagine the tea party seeking to eradicate any of these programs?

They can’t imagine it either, because the scenario for failure is too obvious. The tea party’s adherents know that any attempted repeal would be attacked as “mean-spirited, heartless, and selfish.” And they know that, according to conventional moral standards, they would stand guilty as charged. Paralyzed by this moral conflict, they will simply refrain from starting battles they can’t win.

A difficult moral battle

And winning this kind of moral battle, though possible, would be difficult. The tea party’s adherents would need to discover the moral principle underlying the often quoted but little understood ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They would need to argue that all schemes that sacrifice the individual to society are morally wrong. And they would need to argue that this country’s most rational and industrious citizens – including business leaders, doctors, health insurers, and taxpayers and productive individuals in all walks of life – are oppressed victims who deserve to be liberated, by permanent repeal of laws and regulations that invade their rights.

In short, the tea party would need to fully embrace individualism as a moral ideal. Although the odds against this are exceedingly large, I think there’s some cause for optimism. For the first time, a resistance movement is looking for answers in Ayn Rand’s writings. From the original public rant that inspired the tea party idea (when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli said “at the end of the day, I’m an Ayn Rander”) to last fall’s US Senate victory by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson (who calls "Atlas Shrugged" his “foundational book”), Rand’s uncompromising defense of individualism has become a part of the tea-party mix.

Can the tea party deliver on its promise to cut back big government? Yes it can, but not unless its supporters awaken to the need for moral intransigency in pursuing individual liberty.

Thomas A. Bowden is a legal analyst at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. The Ayn Rand Center is a division of the Ayn Rand Institute and promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”

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