Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A Mad Tea Party's Brewing

The so-called ‘Tea Party’ movement in America is at first glance a curious brew. It appears to be a coming together of individuals who want more freedom, and the way they go about it is to demand less intervention from government. Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, connected it to the shift towards greater social freedom in the 1960s and economic freedom in the 1980s. It was, he suggested, a long term trend of people wanting to get on with their own lives without government telling them what to do.

But one man’s freedom can easily be another’s enslavement – if there were no fair rules, and no impartial system to enforce them. In the 1960s, the freedom of Blacks, women, homosexuals, and other people disadvantaged by prevailing social conditions and prejudices only expanded because successive governments intervened to end the discriminatory actions of many in the general population, and in so doing helped to engender a more progressive culture. Reagan, who opposed these reforms, tellingly spoke in favour of white people retaining their freedom to refuse to sell houses to Blacks.

The economic freedom championed by Reagan and friends through the 1980s was precisely the freedom of those with the economic muscle to do as they pleased at the expense of those with little power. What the advocates of such ‘gangster’ freedom wanted was to make people think that they would all be better off with a much reduced government, when in fact the common good would just get trampled on by those with the most formidable weapons in their corporate arsenal.

It was of course a direct consequence of the deregulation of the 1980s/1990s which allowed financial businesses to wreck the world’s economy. The Tea Party movement is now trying to blame the government for doing too much when the problem is that the government had done too little in recent decades. Having pushed government’s control back, financial institutions used their greater freedom to put millions of people’s life savings at risk. The Tea Party proponents attacked the government for spending billions to prevent the financial system from meltdown, but what would they prefer instead? Let countless ordinary citizens lose everything they had because the banks had recklessly gambled their money away?

When the evocative ‘Tea Party’ label is peeled away, what we have is actually the same old ‘Let’s Help the Powerful Help Themselves’ sleight-of-hand. Look closely at what they are agitating for: tax the powerful less; don’t help the vulnerable, especially with their healthcare needs; stop interfering with what energy companies want to do; and generally reduce the capacity of public institutions to hold commercial interests to account. And if bank failures, massive oil leaks, destructive climate fluctuations, helplessness amongst the sick and poor, widespread unemployment should bring millions to their knees and at the mercy of those who are by now more powerful than ever, then all the better as far as they’re concerned.

The madness and deceit of it all are summed up by George Monbiot’s splendid indictment of Matt Ridley (Guardian 1 June 2010) – a classic cheerleader for the ‘Tea Party’ cause – government, accordingly to Ridley, is “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world”, it undermines market freedom through taxes, regulations and bailouts. Ridley became the chairman of Northern Rock Building Society, which exploited deregulation to lend recklessly and ended up on the brink of collapse risking a total wipeout of their customers’ savings. The government had to bailout Northern Rock with a public rescue package worth £27 billion. For once the true parasite is unmasked.

No comments: