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The Independent Institute
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To the Tea Party: War and Liberty Aren’t Fellow Travelers


In an astute op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor, James Bovard points out that the love of liberty by the Tea Party crowd usually takes a backseat to a hatred of President Obama and the Left. After attending a tax day Tea Party event in Rockville, Md., a suburb of the nation’s capital, Bovard reported that the Tea Partiers oppose big government from the Left but not from the Right. Big government from the Right usually involves warfare and its accompanying enhanced police powers at home, which usually severely erode the liberty Tea Partiers claim to stand for. For example, the tea sippers extended their pinkies in a salute to torture, harsh policies toward Iran, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They didn’t seem to mind the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping and vacuuming up of ordinary Americans’ phone calls either, according to Bovard.

Yet of all the causes of big government in human history, warfare is the most important. The nation-state originally came into being because wars had become too expensive for mere kingdoms to handle.

And then the welfare state followed the warfare state. In fact, a militaristic conservative, Otto von Bismarck, created the first modern welfare state in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century.

In American history too, welfare has followed warfare. The roots of the Social Security system were planted with pensions for Civil War veterans. The progressive movement—with its counterproductive regulations on business that hurt the consumers it was trying to help—followed the Spanish-American colonial war.

But World War I was what allowed big government a vast and permanent foothold in American society. War had become so expensive and large scale that the U.S. government took over the entire economy to fight it—historically, the first time that had happened. Equally important, the government crushed dissent with the worst violations of civil liberties in American history. The war’s only rivals in stifling free political discourse were the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the late 1700s—ostensibly needed by the government to fight off the French in the Quasi War but really aimed at political opponents. After World War I, resulting anti-foreign sentiments led to a red scare and the Palmer raids by law enforcement on innocent people.

During the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought back many of the World War I wartime agencies designed to “manage” the economy and simply renamed them. The war had set the bad precedent that no sector of the American economy was immune from government meddling.

World War II, the most horrific war in world history, also gave us the most government. During the war, government again took over regulation of the economy and even accounted for more than 40 percent of the American economy’s output, an all-time high. Although for the general population, civil liberties erosion was not as great as during World War I, that was little comfort to Japanese-Americans, who had not a single instance of disloyalty but were thrown into unconstitutional internment camps anyway.

The Cold War, although spawning only periodic hot wars, corroded civil liberties because it lasted so long. The McCarthyite witch hunts for communists in the 1950s and presidential wiretapping during the Vietnam War era that led to Watergate both began over fears of compromising information to unfriendly ears during those periods.

And of course, we have George W. Bush, a big-government conservative, who curiously wins, as Bovard notes, a 57 percent approval rating from the “small government” Tea Partiers. Yet in parallel with his war on terror, domestic spending increased more than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and he dramatically increased executive power to near tyrannical proportions by illegally using torture, wiretapping, and indefinite detentions without trial.

As Bovard notes, Tea Partiers are right-wing Obama-haters rather than liberty-lovers. And like their icon Sarah Palin, they seem proudly ignorant of history. Even the Boston Tea Party, from which the supposedly anti-tax Tea Party movement gets its name, hardly promoted liberty. The original Tea Party was caused by the British reducing taxes, not increasing them. The British had reduced the tariff on tea, thereby ruining the smuggling business in which many of the Bostonian vandals were engaged. After the violent and unnecessary destruction of private property by a mob—which other American cities had avoided and no true proponent of liberty should celebrate—the British cracked down on Boston. This crackdown thus eventually triggered the American Revolution, which likely decreased liberty in America. Wars almost always do.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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