Tea Party’s definition of liberty

| Staff Columnist

It’s 2010 and tri-corner hats might seem like an eccentric fashion choice, unless the wearer happens to be starring in a second grade history pageant. Not so, according to the so-called Tea Party movement, at least in the symbolic sense. This recent grass-roots movement, loosely united by fervor for limited government and original intent, has become a major force of dissent in conservative politics. For me, the disturbing aspect of the movement stems from its narrow-minded adherence to the concept of “liberty,” as though this concept is the only political virtue worth considering. By co-opting the mythos of the American Revolution, this grass-roots movement has demonstrated how easy it is to simplify complex political issues into one convenient ideological catchphrase.

The Tea Party movement arose in 2009 out of protests in response to the current debate over health care and the financial crisis. Critical of Democrats and mainstream Republicans alike, “tea-partiers” believe in constitutionally limited government and the supremacy of the free market. Followers favor interpreting the Constitution based on the original intent of its founders. The movement is attracting the attention of the political mainstream. Demonstrably, Sarah Palin, former Republican vice presidential candidate and porn muse (“Nailin’ Palin”), spoke at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.

I have several critiques of this particular political ideology. First of all, I believe the Constitution should be viewed as a living document­—there is no reason to believe the Founding Fathers were inviolable in their judgment, and social progress does occur, necessitating new interpretations. This unshakeable belief in the unquestionable judgment of the Founding Fathers strikes me as somewhat naïve. Secondly, and more importantly, the movement’s extreme adherence to minimalist government is based on a superficial understanding of the notion of “liberty.” The group defines liberty as the free market, gun rights and limited taxation—essentially, the ability to “do” something without restriction, mainly in economic terms. But, these values don’t take into account other ideas of freedom—freedom from hunger and freedom from economic exploitation, for example. Unrestrained capitalism doesn’t result in a perfectly competitive, ideal market. Not regulating businesses, for example, can lead to monopolies and too-low wages for workers. While superficially unrestrained capitalism grants the individual “liberty” to do what they please with their money, it is difficult to see where the freedom lies in a job that pays too little. Absolute faith in the free market also assumes that everyone will get what they deserve, based on hard work and merit. But this is not always a reality. Case in point: Paris Hilton. Gun rights also allow citizens the “freedom” to arm themselves easily; but, what happens when one person’s easy access to a gun interferes with another’s freedom to live safely? While there is no easy answer to any of these issues, it is important to take into the account the idea that “freedoms” and rights do conflict with each other—a fact this movement seems to ignore.

The whole premise of living in a society governed by laws is the relinquishing of some freedom—the freedom to bash one another’s brains in with rocks, for example. Touting “freedom” as an absolute guarantee of social stability is absurd—it comes into conflict with other values such as justice. It’s more difficult to get a fair shake in the legal system without a lot of money, for example. Equating liberty with a lack of economic restraint can lead to great disparities in wealth as well as exploitation; it also sells short the concept of liberty. Freedom implies choice and opportunities, but it’s difficult to pursue a “free” lifestyle when you’re miserably poor. People rarely like to be told what to do, so “liberty” and “freedom” are popular catchphrases. However, in order to have a civil society, individual freedom has to be weighed against societal good—a concept that the Tea Party movement seems to miss. My point isn’t that we should live in an Orwell-esque society, dominated by censorship. The concept of individual liberty has an important place in politics. I am merely suggesting that it is not the only value one should use when evaluating the government. I, for one, wouldn’t oppose to limiting the “freedom” to bash my head in.

Natalie is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at ndvillal@artsci.wustl.edu.

  • Doug


    “Individual Liberty” is about freedom from being coerced by another, not about doing what one pleases. It was an essential part of the enlightenment.

    Freedom from coercion by another by force IS the most important value.

    F. A. Hayek

    “Equality of the general rules of law and conduct, however, is the only kind of equality conducive to liberty and the only equality which we can secure without destroying liberty. Not only has liberty nothing to do with any other sort of equality, but it is even bound to produce inequality in many respects. This is the necessary result and part of the justification of individual liberty: if the result of individual liberty did not demonstrate that some manners of living are more successful than others, much of the case for it would vanish.”

    Even if you disagree with the definition of liberty I’d be surprised if you are against the idea of freedom from coercion. If you are then you might ask yourself how you are different from another in power who would take from you to give to someone else in the name of what THEY think is right when you disagree with it.

  • evan

    This article is full of assumptions based on myths and a misunderstanding of what the American experiment was all about. Whether or not you agree with the founding principles of strictly limited government or in the supreme document of this land (as written, not subsequently interpreted), it is the basis for the rule of law in this country. It was codified in a document that gave provisions for it to be altered if necessary (as the above commentator noted). Believing in a “living document” negates its purpose. Why would anyone go through the trouble to write anything down if it can interpreted to mean whatever the reader wants it to (because your interpretation of social events and needs may differ greatly from mine, so who is to say who is right on which way to “interpret” the document to fulfill those needs.).

    But to be honest that is neither here nor there because the constitution is unfortunately a dead letter. Politicians have chosen to ignore it for the better part of a century so lets move on to the myths espoused in this article…

    1. “superficial understanding of the notion of “liberty.” – Well what is liberty? Liberty is the ideal that a person can live without restriction or restraint in whatever manner he/she chooses to live as long as they aggress against no person or property. This is the widely accepted definition of the word (by webster and the like) so the above interpretations by the “Tea Partiers” is correct. You do not have to agree with their definition or in its ideal but their understanding is not superficial, it is factual and based in a deep understanding of the term and its historical importance.

    2. “Unrestrained capitalism doesn’t result in a perfectly competitive, ideal market. Not regulating businesses, for example, can lead to monopolies and too-low wages for workers.” – Where do you get this idea from? There is no evidence to back any of these claims up. Firstly, there has never been unrestrained capitalism anywhere on earth. Secondly, when there was a much freer market economy in the US during the early 19th century, we experienced the largest growth and increased standard of living in history. Thirdly, during this time there never existed a “bad” monopoly (i use the term “bad” monopoly because there can exist a “good’ monopoly in a free market; ie. one that does not exploit or cut production and raise prices. Although neither a good or bad monopoly existed during this time without government help) except those particularly created by the government. I beg you to find one example of a monopoly existing without government aid anytime in the past 500 years. US Steel was close but the year after they gained 92% of the market they lost 10% because of free competition (within the US) and it has been in steady decline ever since (see http://mises.org/media/4482). And let us not forget the heavy tariff on foreign steel (tariffs have been called the “Mother of all trusts). As long as there is free entry into a industry there can never be a restrictive or “bad” monopoly.

    3. “The whole premise of living in a society governed by laws is the relinquishing of some freedom—the freedom to bash one another’s brains in with rocks, for example” – This example goes to show how little is understood about liberty and natural rights. As espoused in the declaration of independence, by John Adams in his “thoughts on government,” John Lockes second treatise on government and by modern thinkers like Murray Rothbard, everyone is born with “natural rights.” These rights namely are the right to your own life and property (through homesteading or contract). You cannot deny these rights to anyone else by any means. This is liberty as defined above. So the freedom to not have your head bashed in is inherent in natural rights. With that said you in cannot take from someone else with force what they have rightly earned. So food is not a right unless you produced it, bought it or obtained it through contract or gift. Neither is wealth. Unfortunately what you seem to be implying in the above article is that when people are starving you have the right to take from someone else with threat of force to feed this starving person. So in essence you are condoning aggressive violence (or the threat thereof which is the same thing) as a means to an end, namely “social justice.”
    What we have seen time and again is that even with the best of intentions and with notions of the “common good,” all attempts at righting so called wrongs “poverty, income disparity etc.” through force inevitably fail and lead to the opposite of the intended goals. Letting people do what is in their own best interest, while not violating person or property, is the best way known to achieve what you have defined as “social justice.”

  • Jeff Culpepper

    Two things stood out to me in this article: (1) “By Natalie Villalon
    Staff Columnist” and (2) “Natalie is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at ndvillal@artsci.wustl.edu

    So you obviously have never paid taxes of any significance in your entire life by virtue of the fact that you are a “freshman” and a “staff columnist”. You have no concept, no basis, no inkling about what the Tea Party movement is about. It is about a fiscally out of control government who are also incredibly out of touch with the constituency they were elected to SERVE and a majority, YES MAJORITY, of this country being fed up with them. Do you want to know why liberal news organizations (both printed and in the broadcast media) and Liberal talk radio are dying, dead or getting their butts kicked by the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Sara Nailin Pailin??? It’s because the MAJORITY of hard working Americans (who actually pay texes) are sick and tired of Liberal Looters/Liberal Robin Hoods whining and suffering from extreme cases of Wealth Envy. We are sick of it, we are fed up and we have had enough. Mid term elections are just around the corner and this frustration will finally hit home. Mark my word. Here’s a simple exercise, google the definition of liberty and you pretty much have what the Tea Party-ers and Libertarians are all about.

    The comment above by Michael Jones sums up your own argument so eloquently “You want freedom from hunger Constitutionally guaranteed? Amend the Constitution, it is that simple.” Oh wait, maybe the course on The Constitution will be covered during your sophomore year.

  • Jean Louise

    I think the “nailin’ Palin” comment was extremely relevant to the article.

  • Michael Jones

    Could you comment further on why you think “Nailin Palin” is somehow relevant to your editorial? Or is it just a Bill Maher type cheap shot thrown in as a bonus to titillate those who exist at that level?

    Yes, the Constitution is not an inflexible document. That is why there are provisions allowed for amending it. There are no provisions made for activist judges “finding” intent and “revealing” ideas that don’t exist. You want freedom from hunger Constitutionally guaranteed? Amend the Constitution, it is that simple. That way, we all will unequivocally say that.

    I am also a little confused that you equate individual freedoms with the dire prediction your head will be bashed in if we allow them to exist. Which Tea Party idea can you specifically point out that will allow anyone to do that? Can you say “hyperbole”?