Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Teapot Tempest Temporary?

David T. Koyzis


November 5, 2010
by David T. Koyzis

The midterm elections are over and, as successful politicians like to say, the people have spoken. Bolstered by the Tea Party, a Republican majority is once again in charge of the House of Representatives with the Democrats narrowly holding on to the Senate. As Michael Gerson noted last week, the Tea Party is not a unified movement with a clear agenda. It is, rather, a somewhat inchoate phenomenon fueled by widespread discontent with politics as usual. Those Americans supporting the Tea Party do so for a variety of reasons, not all of which necessarily fit into a neat ideological package.

Nevertheless, as its own “official” website proclaims, the Tea Party stands for fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets—themselves unremarkable within the American context. Nevertheless, the way these three principles are worked out gives the movement a pronounced libertarian flavor, even if not all supporters are necessarily libertarians.

On the surface, few of us would have difficulty affirming these principles in some fashion. All of us, including governments, must be fiscally responsible with our own resources; otherwise we face financial ruin. Similarly, none of us wishes to live under arbitrary government unrestrained by the rule of law. Moreover, a country with free markets is preferable to one burdened by a Soviet-style command economy.

There are, however, two difficulties with how the Tea Party understands the latter two principles. First, in every country there is inevitably a certain gap between a written constitutional document and a real-life political system, or what might be called the unwritten constitution. In the U.S., the workings of government have evolved over more than two centuries in ways undreamt of by our 18th-century founders. There is nothing amiss in this, as governments everywhere necessarily respond to changed circumstances on the ground. An obvious example of this would be the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission, charged with the regulation of broadcasting, a technology unheard of in 1787.

Second, although free markets are an undoubted good, they are not perfect, and they are certainly not a panacea for the country’s every economic woe. Accordingly, they do not preclude government regulation of the economy where needed, or efforts to address the scourge of poverty more directly. The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship call for government to “protect and promote a thriving social sector to help meet diverse welfare needs.” Government does so primarily by encouraging nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address these needs and by supporting these efforts.

However, the Center’s Guidelines also recognize that government action may go beyond support for NGOs, “because people in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or when economic conditions restrict private charity.” No government can solve by itself a complex problem like poverty, whose causes are not solely political. Yet there is no warrant for assuming that government should play no role in addressing such needs. If government abdicates this responsibility, the abuses and ills that prompted government action in the first place would likely return and the cycle would repeat itself.

The Tea Party has scored what may prove to be temporary victories at the polls. Buoyed by the midterm election results, its supporters are tempted to think they’ve accomplished something of lasting significance. However, unless they are able better to understand the realities of the present system, to grasp more fully the complexities of the political process, and to recognize the flaws in their own classical liberal vision, they will join the likes of similar past protest movements, whose impacts are felt for a time until the public becomes disillusioned and moves on to something else.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”