Opinion

Libertarians should reject the Tea Party

I have to take issue with my former Cato colleague Dan Mitchell and Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, two people who I agree with on many issues. Like them I want to see the cost of government curtailed and agree that we shouldn’t live at the expense of future generations. We would no doubt disagree on the priorities for government — I believe in a greater welfare role — but even so, on the issue of reducing government we are on the same side.

But I part company with them on whether the Tea Party movement is a net plus for America. Steve and Dan maintain that it is a good thing on the grounds that “there is a growing mass of citizens who think it’s important to restrain government.”  They are prepared to overlook the fact that like any mass movement it has a “few odd characters.” Steve admits in a recent column that his first impression of the movement was: “It’s a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn’t firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.”

But his second impression is that “we are lucky to have them.”

I am afraid I can’t overlook “the strain of intolerance and xenophobia.” I can’t overlook the “Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes.” And I think it highly dangerous for libertarians, economic conservatives and small-government Democrats (yes, there are some out there) to do so. You can be for restraining government and fiscal responsibility without aligning with the Tea Party — it isn’t an either/or proposition.

American libertarians have had a tendency in the past to feel that they can ignore the racial blots and social authoritarianism of those who share their limited government/fiscal responsibility positions. It ends in tears though. Should limiting government be more important to a libertarian than, say, civil liberties? Surely not. The importance of both of those is intertwined with a respect for the individual, with a yearning for individual liberty, with an openness to other cultures and races or, as Reason magazine’s tag would have it, “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

This tendency to overlook the bad has a lot to do with aligning with those who might be able to carry out part of the libertarian agenda. The GOP may win control of Capitol Hill in the fall, so let’s be nice to them. Libertarians formed an alliance with the Gingrich Republicans but didn’t get much out of that except Health Savings Accounts. Out of George W. Bush they got a foreign policy they were appalled of, civil liberty abuses that shocked them and the economic nonsense of Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter.”

Similar disappointment awaits them if they carry on flirting with the Tea Party. Brink Lindsay, a former Cato scholar, was right to look to the left for more appropriate allies, but alas Washington, D.C. libertarians didn’t follow.

Jamie Dettmer is a former political writer for The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He blogs at www.jamiedettmer.com. Dettmer is a former senior editor at the Washington Times and the former director of communications at the Cato Institute.