Sunday, March 28, 2010

And by smaller government we mean...

I'm trying really hard not to dismiss the Tea Party out of hand. I think it's reductionist and unfair to regard its members as simply motivated by racism (though perhaps some are) or suggest that the whole movement is part of some fell funded Republican campaign (though some of it is). That being said, I'm having a tough time buying the argument that the Tea Party really wants smaller government. Take this recent New York Times profile of recently unemployed supporters of the movement:
"When Tom Grimes lost his job as a financial consultant 15 months ago, he called his congressman, a Democrat, for help getting government health care. Then he found a new full-time occupation: Tea Party activist...

Mr. Grimes, who receives Social Security, has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with the literature of the movement, including Glenn Beck’s 'Arguing With Idiots' and Frederic Bastiat’s 'The Law,' which denounces public benefits as 'false philanthropy.' 'If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own,' Mr. Grimes said...

He blames the government for his unemployment. 'Government is absolutely responsible, not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s,' he said. 'The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.' He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact."
Obviously smaller government would have less trade restrictions and fewer retraining programs for workers. In fact, one of history's most vocal supporters of free trade is Bastiat, who is required reading for libertarians. These are not small contradictions.

Of course these are just one person's views. But polls of Tea Party supporters seem to suggest similar inconsistencies. For example, a recent Bloomberg poll found that while 90% of Tea Party supporters fret that the US is moving toward "socialism", 70% favor the federal government fostering job creation. Further, half of those polled favored government restrictions on Wall Street salaries and their views were mixed about privatizing Medicare and other federal programs.

In fact the real gripe may not be the size of government, per se, but the perceived bias in policy. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that Tea Party supporters were more likely than other Americans to feel that "President Obama is working mainly on behalf of the poor, and not the middle class."

These polls pose interesting questions about the future of the Tea Party and what its impact on policy will ultimately be. Will the movement maintain its relevance when unemployment falls below 7%? Will deficit concerns impact legislation that largely benefits the middle class? (Note, that the 2003 passage of Medicare Part D, the hugely expensive but unfunded expansion of Medicare, met with no opposition from anti-deficit campaigners.)

Personally, I think the Tea Party will fizzle as the economy improves. While Americans in general are less amenable to large government than Europeans, the views expressed by Tea Party supporters don't indicate any large ideological shift. People are angry because times are tough and they feel neglected. But that doesn't mean we're headed toward some small-government Randian utopia.

1 comment:

The Arthurian said...

Excellent post, Dan. It is hard to read the future when the-powers-that-be have no clue what's wrong with the economy, and when the organized-opposition has no clue either and is energized by anger.

I think the Tea Party will fizzle IF the economy improves. But just doing a little less bad for a while may not be sufficient. "You have to have lived in the 1950s and 1960s to have experienced a good economy." [Jude Wanniski in Reader's Digest, Feb 1995, p.49] The economy has not been "good" for a long time.

What bothers me most is that so many people think political solutions can solve economic problems.