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 [email protected]

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.