I’ve been hearing more and more references lately to the Tea Party movement as a third political party. Rasmussen even polled a generic three-way ballot for congressional races, finding D-36%, T-23%, R-18%. T is for The Tea Party, the fictional third party that could be imagined arising out of the movement bearing its name. And it’s beating the Republicans.
I’m very sympathetic to this movement, because I share with it a common cause — defending liberty and the American way against a power-hungry and increasingly-gluttonous federal government. But just to be clear, I doubt that a third party will emerge from this movement, unless it is large enough to supersede the Republican Party, in which unlikely case it would just be the second party. No, Tea Partiers will mostly vote for Republicans, because that’s the party out of power and the party that used to be somewhat sympathetic to their cause, and because they know that dividing the electorate amongst these three groups would only cement their worst case: total Democratic control for years.
There’s a lot of anger all around directed at the federal government, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Pres. Obama, and former Pres. Bush, among countless other power-wielders inside and outside the government. Many of the angry people at these rallies are not overeducated pundits carefully articulating their grievances. They are consequently easily caricatured by a media hostile to their causes, and a widespread belief has emerged amongst the elites that they are not a movement built on coherent beliefs, but rather on rage. This is a grave error that the elites could suffer for making.
Suppose for the sake of discussion that there were such a Tea Party. We already have a left-wing party and we already have a right-wing party. The Tea Party is not some new party that falls in the middle of the two, or to some farther extreme. The Tea Party is generally right-of-center, but does not have to be (in many ways it’s not… there are strong anti-war and anti-corporate factions). You’ll notice before that I did not say it was despised by the left, but by the elites — and therein lies the difference. The Democrats and Republicans may be on different sides of the left/right, progressive/conservative split, but they do align, at least in their leadership (which is what counts at the end of the day), on an altogether different axis. Some years, the Democrats run the government. Other years, the Republicans run the government. They volley back and forth for one thing: power. The other axis is about the allocation of power — collectivism/individualism, totalitarianism/anarchy, tyranny/liberty. Being close to the side of collectivism/totalitarianism/tyranny is beneficial if you’re one of the guys sharing power, one of the elites, the tyrannical totalitarians directing the collective. Some years it’s Democrats, and other years it’s Republicans. The leadership of both parties benefits from being near the totalitarian side. The rest of us suffer.
The Tea Party may be right-of-center, but that’s not the reason it exists. Its members may not all be able to articulate it clearly yet, but they do understand this. I talk to people all the time who tell me they are angry and afraid, that they feel duped by the system, that at the end of the day, no matter who’s in power, they’re getting screwed. The Tea Party isn’t about anarchy because it recognizes that government is necessary, but it is about being closer to that extreme than to the other, it’s about valuing the individual, it’s about restoring liberty. The Tea Party wants to back away from a powerful government and restore personal liberty. History has shown that the two simply cannot coexist.
The top Democrats and the top Republicans want to control our lives. The Tea Partiers don’t want to control anything except their own destinies. And that, my friends, is the real difference. And that’s why I’d vote for them any day, even if they are gun-totin’, Bible-clingin’, unrefined hillbillies. Sounds like my kind of people.
Complexity, emergence, self-organization, evolution — these are all related ideas that have been written and read about pretty extensively in the last few years. They’re good and valuable ideas, and I’m glad we’re doing a better job now of using them in our thinking. The idea that order and structure can emerge and organize based on a few basic thermodynamical laws and the inherent properties of the basic building blocks of that structure and the environment they exist in, is very powerful. And it’s very sensible.
I’ve encountered two very different types of mindsets that restrict the applicability of these ideas to what I’ll call “favored spaces” of understanding. I believe both groups are wrong to do so.
- The first group, less common amongst the intelligentsia, is that human institutions and endeavors such as free markets are self-organizing, but that natural ones are not. Members of this group are inclined toward small-government conservatism and libertarianism. At the same time, they’re mostly Christians or other religious. They look at the stunning simplicity and beauty of a complex natural world, and conclude that only a Great Being could have put it in such a spectacular ordering as what they are admiring. That Great Being, of course, is God.
- The second group is somewhat the opposite. These are academics and professional thinkers of a variety of trades. They look out into the world and see evolutionary and emergent processes at work. They see a world without a director, or at least without need of one. At the same time, they turn to fields of human endeavor, and are perfectly content to deny these principles. Free markets cannot self-organize, individual liberties must be restricted to maintain a social order and prevent chaos. They look at the monumental institutions of mankind, and conclude that only a Great Being could maintain and advance such a spectacular ordering of human endeavor. That Great Being, of course, is Them.
So why am I talking about all this? I recently read an article in the Boston Globe, Too Complex to Exist:
It may be true, in fact, that complex networks such as financial systems face an inescapable trade-off – between size and efficiency on one hand, and global stability on the other. Once they have been assembled, in other words, globally interconnected and integrated financial networks just may be too complex to prevent crises like the current one from reoccurring.
Rather than waiting until the next cascade is imminent, and then following the usual modus operandi of propping up the handful of firms that seem to pose the greatest threat, it may be time for a new approach: preventing the system from becoming overly complex in the first place.
I’ve had similar notions of my own, that these big, complex, and efficient systems are growing far too complex to be managed from above, that due to their complexity they cannot be effectively regulated by the government. But where I differ is in the conclusion I draw from it. I don’t want to shout, “Stop! Your achievements are too complex for me to orchestrate! Slow down! Do less!” I would rather accept something that used to be very hard for me to accept: that we don’t need a small elite overseeing our work and lives, that we don’t need to be managed as part of a coherent and comprehensible system of engineered order, designed to maximize a collective quality of life.
Maybe the proponents of Intelligent Design can’t prove their holy grail theory, that nature was put into order by a Great Being. Maybe they should stop trying to make that leap, from the structure of the eye to the existence of a Great Being designer. Maybe there are other things they could be doing.
Maybe trying to be prepared for every outside risk is ludicrous. Maybe it can’t be governed away. Maybe we simply can’t do it. Maybe that’s not what we should be trying to do at all. Maybe we’re not Great Beings.
On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: “Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?” If the answer is “yes,” the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk.
Officers and enlisted members of the U.S. military swear similar oaths affirming their duties before God. The variant recited by officers runs as follows:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Many are taking note of just how broad this oath is, and what their duties are because of it. “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” has become a catalyst for protest against the enemies of the Constitution who now permeate the elected offices of our government.
These are real heroes.
Federalism is a bedrock principle underlying American government — keeping different layers of government with different powers in competition with one another was supposed to prevent a republican form of tyranny from arising. Barry Weingast identifies five features of federalism that create “market-preserving” (read: power-limiting) conditions of competition between governments:
- Each level of government has a delineated scope of authority
- Each government is autonomous in policy
- Sub-levels of government have primary regulatory responsibility over the economy
- Free trade and free movement of people are ensured by the central government
- Governments face hard budget constraints (no inflation and no bail out of the lower levels by the central level)
Since the Civil War, and especially following the reforms of the Progressive Era, we have seen this glorious institution eroded to the point that state governments are rarely much more than administrative arms and budgetary cop-outs of the federal government. This degradation of federalism has recently reached a new height of intensity.
In an April opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett proposed to cut off the expansion of federal power right at the source, in the very Constitution that ostensibly defines the scope of federal power, by passing a Federalism Amendment. Included amongst its provisions was the strict prohibition of intrastate regulation by Congress, an expansion of Congress’s regulatory power over interstate activity beyond commerce, a repeal of the income tax, and an explicit declaration that the Constitution’s words are to be interpreted “according to their public meaning at the time of their enactment”. This seemed like an awfully messy conglomeration of ideas, which, after a period of public commentary, he would recast as a 10-amendment Bill of Federalism, with sections entitled:
- Restrictions on Tax Powers of Congress
- Limits of Commerce Power
- Unfunded Mandates and Conditions on Spending
- No Abuse of the Treaty Power
- Freedom of Political Speech and Press
- Power of States to Check Federal Power
- Term Limits for Congress
- Balanced Budget Line Item Veto
- The Rights Retained by the People
- Neither Foreign Law nor American Judges May Alter the Meaning of Constitution
How would a Bill of Federalism ever be adopted? It would seem to only be possible by the states threatening to or actually calling a Constitutional Convention. That, of course, has never occurred before and probably never will. But suppose it were to — why would we expect our government to follow these amendments any more than it follows the rest of the Constitution? A written constitution was a magnificent experiment that has failed because we have allowed our governments to ignore the restrictions we once placed upon them — we are living in a “post-constitutional” nation now, where we mostly only refer to the Constitution for electoral procedures and public relations.
This well-intentioned effort to save federalism is tragically in vain.