A "Tea Party Manifesto" was published this week in the Wall Street Journal, which may be a strange place to publicize a movement founded partly on hostility to bailouts. You'd think such manifestos would be a dime a dozen already, but the Journal op-ed is really a free ad for a book-length manifesto from the same authors. And who are these tribunes of the grass roots? One is a retired Congressperson, Dick Armey, and the other, Matt Kibbe, is his partner in the FreedomWorks think tank, which proves to be a post-schism rebranding of an Eighties entity known as the Center for a Sound Economy. These guys are old news. Who are they to speak for the people who reportedly rose spontaneously, without prompting from raido, internet or think tanks, to protest government-business collusion in general and the Obama administration in particular? They promise on behalf of Tea Partiers a "hostile takeover" of the Republican party, but the Manifesto itself seems like an attempt to take over the Tea Party movement and steer it in those directions Armey and Kibbe choose.
What would the authors have the movement stand for? Armey and Kibbe appear to be doctrinaire libertarians. They invoke both Friedrich Hayek's concept of "spontaneous order" and Ayn Rand's "Trader Principle" to argue that "Decentralization, not top-down hierarchy, is the best way to maximize the contributions of people and their personal knowledge." By contrast, according to their demonology, "The big-government crowd is drawn to the compulsory nature of centralized authority. They can't imagine an undirected social order. Someone needs to be in charge—someone who knows better."
This is a comprehensive mischaracterization of the way democracy has evolved in America. There is centralization, and there is hierarchy, but the authors fail to recognize, or are unwilling to acknowledge that when these work properly they form a bottom-up hierarchy through which citizens as voters give direction to the government, which then implements democratic directives in the top-down manner FreedomWorks finds so odious. Armey and Kibbe are eager to characterize "big government" as a creation and instrument of know-it-all elitists (as opposed to an alleged "common sense" preference for decentralization), but it was called into being and affirmed repeatedly by landslide majorities of ordinary Americans during the 20th century. They blame the excesses of big government on "bureaucrats presumed to know better what you need," but their real problem, whether they realize it or not, is not with bureaucrats but with millions of fellow citizens who presume to know better than Armey, Kibbe et al what we as a country need. Centralization and hierarchy are appropriate when government is mandated by the people to concern itself with the well being of everyone. As standard-issue entrepreneurial reactionaries, our would-be Tea Party spokesleaders are only concerned with ensuring that individuals maximize the winnings deemed rightfully theirs by their doctrine. They might argue that this is the best way to ensure that the most people prosper, but their consideration of "most people" is certainly secondary, and almost certainly incomplete, compared to their claim of entitlement to all that the market might give them.
Of course, my disliking this manifesto could be taken for granted. The real issue is whether Tea Partiers will recognize it as a bible of their own. It sounds some libertarian notes, but it's still unclear if the movement is deeply libertarian in orientation. Armey tries to ignore his own past as a Republican hack by applauding TPs' readiness and ability to defeat GOP "big spenders" in primaries, but his promise of a "hostile takeover" of his old party should beg the question of how thoroughly Armey repudiates his old establishment peers. The op-ed version of the Manifesto, for instance, says nothing about foreign policy, while Tea Partiers, to the extent that they're libertarian or paleo-conservative, should be skeptical toward the country's foreign commitments. Nor does the word "bailout" appear in the Journal piece, despite the role of bailouts in provoking the TPs, except in the context of pensions for state workers. For Armey and Kibbe the cardinal economic sin of our time wasn't the bailouts but the stimulus. The issue of government-business collusion, which troubles many TPs and many of their sympathizers, isn't up for discussion here. Since shrinking government has been part of the Republican rhetorical routine for nearly fifty years, and has been consistently belied by the performance of Republican presidents, why should any self-styled insurgent see anything new in a former GOP majority leader preaching that old line and nothing else? Armey and Kibbe may call for a hostile takeover, but who'll do the taking-over remains to be seen.