Government & Constitution

What Sets the Tea Party Apart

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series by FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe.

Several weeks ago I attended a lecture by Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, asking the question: “How do social norms emerge spontaneously?” The timing of this talk coincided with the emergence of the first Occupy Wall Street protests, and helped me answer a very different question: What is the difference between OWS and the Tea Party?

Both Smiths, Adam and Vernon, argue that individual freedoms and individual property rights are the foundations of moral behavior – the values that bind a community. Individuals with full ownership of their life, liberty and property judge themselves, and they care about the positive judgments of others. This accountability is the moral basis that binds a community, allows for cooperation, and enables human prosperity.

Adam Smith said it this way: “The most sacred laws of justice, therefore, those whose violation seems to call loudest for vengeance and punishment, are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbour; the next are those which guard his property and possessions…” Tea Partiers, not likely having read The Theory of Moral Sentiments but having inherited this insight genetically from our Founding Fathers, might sum it up another way: Don’t hurt other people and don’t take their stuff.

From this “sacred law,” comes the Tea Party’s righteous indignation with bailouts and deficit spending (paid for with other people’s stuff) and other government intrusions on our lives, such as ObamaCare’s mandate dictating to every American what health insurance we must buy and which treatments we may or may not be allowed to have. Every policy we oppose can be characterized as forcing the responsible to subsidize the irresponsibility of others, an inversion of individual responsibility.  

How it is possible for so many people from so many diverse backgrounds and so many various stations in life to come together with a real sense of purpose and cohesiveness as a community called the Tea Party? The sense of responsibility that informs our policies also shapes our demonstrations.

When we petition our government for a redress of grievances, as over one million did on Sept. 12, 2009, we don’t get into fights. We don’t get arrested. We say “excuse me” and “thank you,” and wait in hopelessly long lines for too few porta-pots. We pick up our trash and we leave both public spaces and private property exactly as we found it.

A strong sense of individualism, personal responsibility and respect for property is the operating philosophy that allows peaceful order to emerge where violence and chaos might have otherwise happened. No one told us to do these things; we just believe that you shouldn’t hurt other people and you shouldn’t take their stuff.

The principles make the modern Tea Party a lot like it namesake, the Boston Tea Party, which was a carefully orchestrated event designed to galvanize colonial opinion in favor of American independence. Sam Adams ensured that no one was hurt, and that only East India Company tea, protected by the British government’s monopoly status, was destroyed.

That sense of responsibility and a desire for truly peaceful and meaningful protest, is what sets the Tea Party apart. An African American woman named Latoya, who was working at a local Chicago TV studio where I did an interview recently, described it this way: “The difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street is the difference between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Malcolm X said: ‘By any means necessary.’” She’s spot on right. More on the difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street tomorrow…

Tomorrow, in the second of three parts in this series, Matt Kibbe looks at what’s different about Occupy Wall Street.


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