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Tea Party Protests Sweep the Country: But What's the Message? (Updated)

With protests taking place all around the country, there should be no doubt that the Tea Party movement is something real (see PJTV’s coverage of the Tea Party protests here). The voices are loud — and becoming louder with each successive demonstration. Disapproval of the stimulus/spending bill continues to grow, and I expect the crowds in places like Nashville, Kansas City, and, of course, Washington, D.C., will also continue to grow.

Still, if you’ve been unable to hear a message other than “We’re not happy,” you’re not alone. The objection to the spending bill is real, but other than objecting, what is the purpose of these protests?

An unscientific poll at Instapundit suggests we’re mostly protesting in order to elect fiscal hawks. I don’t know about you, but it seems like it would have been more effective to simply run fiscal hawks as candidates, rather than protest their absence less than five months after the election. Still, let’s say that is the driving factor for most Americans taking part in the Tea Party protests. Will we continue these protests until the 2010 elections? What if we don’t get what we want?

More importantly, what if the events taking place are momentous enough to be worthy of more than just our scattered and somewhat incoherent cries of protest? Is our only response a loud proclamation of opposition to the trampling of our rights? Are we allowed to protest with our voices as long as our bodies acquiesce? History tells us that is an empty freedom. Voices that have no force of authority behind them are weak weapons against the soft bondage of socialism and totalitarianism, and hollow voices of protest mean nothing when bodies willingly enter into a state of servitude.

It may be that we’re nowhere near that point, but the fact remains that far too many of us remain oblivious to the idea that we could ever face the reality of our individual liberty being subsumed by the State. Why? It’s not as if this concept of a servile nation is some heretofore unknown idea. More than 400 years ago, the philosopher Etienne de la Boetie wrote of this phenomenon in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Speaking of Rome in the time of emperors, he said:

Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. … The mob has always behaved in this way — eagerly open to bribes that cannot be honorably accepted and dissolutely callous to degradation and insult that cannot be honorably endured.

A centuries-old philosopher describing a society that has been extinct for nearly 2,000 years, and yet it bears a remarkable similarity to the entitlements of our own generation. But bread and circuses are not for us, and neither are the promises of “new and saved jobs” if only we hand over unheard of amounts of money and power to our most distant form of government. We are not a mob. We are reasoned people. We are learned people. We have the ability to make our own decisions, and if we ever choose servility we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

I’d like to think that many of those protesting are worried about such things, even if they are still thinking about these dangers in an abstract sense. Isn’t it better to once again have a national conversation about these things, even in theory, rather than face the possibility of a constitutional crisis in which the American people are unprepared? I hope Americans will remember that we don’t need to take to the streets or fight a revolution. All we have to do is abide by our conscience. We don’t demand unreasonable things. We only demand that our property, our liberty, and our rights remain secure. We demand these things in the name of the Republic and the millions who have sacrificed their lives for these principles. We demand these things for the Americans not yet born, who are entitled to the right to their own property and should not have to tolerate the confiscation of their earnings to pay for our own sins.

I worry that, despite the Tea Party protests, too many of us will find it a bother to ever stand up for ourselves. La Boetie recognized this too. In fact, he wrote that tyrants are created by the people.

… when a thousand, a million men, a thousand cities, fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth, any more than valor can be termed the effort of one individual to scale a fortress, to attack an army, or to conquer a kingdom. What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough, which nature herself disavows and our tongues refuse to name?

I cannot accept that Americans who speak so fervently in favor of liberty are only paying lip service to that exalted ideal. I cannot believe that those who see danger in our current policies will choose to ignore the crisis and leave it up to our children to fight our battles, though they will be less equipped and less inclined to fight for their liberties. In fact, if the current situation is as dire as our pundits believe it to be, by the time our children are old enough to stand up for themselves, they will have forgotten what it means to do so.

La Boetie anticipated this as well. He believed that once liberty is lost, it becomes nearly impossible to regain, because of society’s “forgetfulness of its freedom.”

It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born.

This is why we must be ever vigilant to our entering into a state of voluntary servitude. There are real dangers that if we leave it to the next generation to deal with the loss of liberty, they will not even recognize what they no longer have. Diminished liberty will be the new normal, and those of us who believe in limited government, the right of the individual, and the ultimate authority of the people will be left on the fringes of political philosophy. Perhaps that will not be the case, and our children will be the ones embodied with the boldness to act. They will be acting against interests that will be more entrenched and that will make their job more difficult. If we ever determine that we are in fact becoming a servile people, we cannot stand idly by while liberty is dismembered.

La Boetie wasn’t the only philosopher concerned with voluntary servitude.  John Dickinson, a moderate who ultimately refused to sign the Declaration of Independence (but still fought in the Continental Army after independence was declared), believed voluntary servitude should be resisted. He, along with Thomas Jefferson, wrote in 1775:

<blockquote>We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.</blockquote>

As we wonder how far we may have fallen towards a state of voluntary servitude, it may help to think back to the original Tea Party participants. In 1774, as a direct consequence of the Boston Tea Party, British Parliament passed a series of punitive economic measures that came to be known in the colonies as the “Intolerable Acts.” What, I wonder, would we consider intolerable, as opposed to ill-advised or merely detrimental acts of our own Congress? The answer to that question may not be as theoretical as we think, and could help determine the future course of this nation in the months and years to come.