The folly of Tea parties
These are the core principles of the Tea Party Patriots — "constitutionally limited government," "fiscal responsibility" and "free markets" — a group that calls itself "the official grassroots American movement." This conservative group hopes to ensure that public policy is made in a manner that is consistent with these principles. They claim that once these core principles are instilled into our policy-making process, public policies will go on to protect individual liberty.
According to the Tea Party Patriots, we live in a country where big government — which costs big bucks — is sucking away our personal incomes, preventing us from using the money we worked hard to earn to pursue the happiness we would like to privately seek. Furthermore, it is using the money that it takes from us on various spending programs, which inevitably violate our personal and economic liberty.
We must force the government to accept these core values in order to save our country, claims the Tea Party. A limited government that is fiscally responsible and respects the freedom of the marketplace will not violate our personal liberties, distort our economic pursuits and will consequently cost less.
At face value, these core principles seem very commendable. Who doesn't want lower taxes and more freedom to make personal and economic decisions? But this conservative philosophy seems to be founded on one core fallacy. It is founded on the false assumption that our rights are secured to us through inexpensive government inaction rather than costly government action. The Tea Party activists seem to assume that our liberties are best protected when the government does nothing and that we are economically successful when the government plays no role in the markets at all.
I, however, have come to realize that these assumptions are wrong after a thorough reading of works such as "The Cost of Rights" by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes. Sunstein and Holmes reveal that, in reality, all rights require government enforcement, which is quite costly.
What would a right to property be without government enforcement, for example? Who would protect us from corrupt police forces or trespassers who seek to step onto our property? Who will maintain records of who owns what property? Who will protect our property from foreign threats? In the realm of intangible, intellectual property, who will define what intellectual property is and protect it from those who seek to steal our innovative ideas before we can market them ourselves? It is through law enforcement officers, court judges, federal agencies and military forces that these property rights are protected, and these services come with hefty price tags. Sunstein and Holmes reveal that the cost of operating our system of justice, monitoring government officials and protecting property rights from both domestic and foreign threats costs billions of dollars every year. Our basic right to private property would therefore be meaningless unless taxes were levied to enable government to take on all of these colossal tasks.
Even if protection of our personal property were promised to us in a constitution, it would be meaningless if government did not enforce it. This was undoubtedly proven true in the real life experiences of those whose property and lives were taken from them as their government stood idly by, such as in Bosnia and Rwanda. The experience of African-Americans in our own country provides us with another illustrative case study. The United States boasts a relatively high level of property ownership, and this high level of property ownership owes a great deal of credit to affirmative government action. This government action, however, has historically benefited whites much more than blacks.
After World War II, whites reaped the benefits of the GI Bill, which allowed them to own property for the first time, and once they owned property, they and their families benefited from tax rebates for property ownership. Blacks, on the other hand, did not benefit from the GI Bill nearly as much because they were prevented from doing so by discriminatory state governments, especially in the South. Furthermore, banks engaged in redlining and real estate developers created restrictive covenants, ensuring that even the blacks who owned property owned the worst property that was available. State governments, banks and real estate developers who engaged in these discriminatory actions went unchecked by law enforcement officers and judicial officials. This is why whites today tend to own better property and more property than blacks in the United States. Whites were affirmatively protected and even subsidized by their government, while the government took a big step back from doing the same for blacks — resulting in the inequalities that we see today.
The necessity of government enforcement to make rights real holds true not only for property rights, but also for rights to assemble on public property in order to practice free speech, the right to freely practice one's religion and the right to vote and be civically engaged. The government must maintain and make accessible the public property upon which we seek to freely speak; public officials must ensure that the instrumentalities of government are not overtaken by religious zealots to abuse other religious groups; and government officials must make sure that polling locations are accessible to all those who have a right to vote. These rights all have costs. They are not rights for the government to step back to uphold individual liberty, but for the government to affirmatively work to ensure that individual liberties are protected.
The Tea Party is also incorrect when it calls for the government to remove itself from the marketplace completely. The marketplace simply cannot exist without the government. Even if we are to concede the necessity of government action to affect the laws of supply and demand through fiscal and monetary policy, which has undoubtedly made America's one of the most prosperous economies in the world, the government must provide law enforcement to make the existence of the markets possible. Without government law enforcement, criminal violence would be the means by which to seek profit. This is why capitalists do not invest in poor countries where the government cannot enforce the law; the risk would be too excessive because little, ineffectual governments cannot protect property or investments. The government also reduces risk in the marketplace by monitoring and preventing fraud, another form of law enforcement. The Federal Trade Commission spent $31 million in 1996 investigating unfair and deceptive practices, and the Securities and Trade Commission spent $58 billion to ensure that information about publicly traded companies, if available to investors, would prevent fraud and harmful business practices from being excessively rampant. Both of these services made investors more willing to invest in the American markets by reducing the risk of doing so. If anything, these government-spending programs enhance rather than restrict our economic liberty and prosperity.
For rights to truly be meaningful, they must be enforced. Rights enforcement has great costs. Similarly, the existence of the free market that conservative groups like the Tea Party so proudly espouse requires a government that is, at the very least, taking actions to reduce risks that result from foreign threats, piracy, terrorism, fraud and unfair business practices. While the exact activities that we ask the government to engage in and the appropriate costs of those activities are always up for debate, lampooning government action itself is misguided. Our rights and the free markets presume a competent, well-funded and strong government.
Ben West is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science.