Tea Partiers Epitomize the Tension Between the Individual and the State

There have been some interesting polls out recently that seek to define the tea party phenomenon and quantify its impact on our politics.

That they are older, whiter, more conservative, wealthier, and better educated than the population at large seems to be agreed upon. Beyond that, they appear to have a political affinity for the GOP, although a large number call themselves "independents."

That latter designation comes about because so many have left the Republican Party in the last few years, and despite the fact they will vote almost exclusively with the GOP, they refuse to self-identify with the party. They are as mad at the GOP as they are at Obama and the Democrats -- something that the Democrats could exploit if they abandoned their silly narrative about the tea party movement being astroturfed by Republicans.

There are votes for the Democrats among those people if they were able to frame tea party issues in a way that would appeal to moderate and conservative independents who are attracted to the tea parties due to their fiscal conservatism, but repelled by some of the antics on the fringes of the movement.

But reaching out to the tea party people is probably the last thing on the Democrats' mind as the try to find ways to marginalize them -- namely, pulling the kind of stuff that old Donald Segretti of Nixon dirty tricks fame would have found fun and amusing. Segretti's "ratf**kers" would infiltrate Edmund Muskie campaign rallies and pass out fake campaign literature. But Segretti went to jail for forging campaign documents, not impersonating liberals. No doubt the "crashers" at tea parties will not have quite as good a time being fingered as spies.

But regardless of what you think of the tea party people and movement, it should be recognized as being part of the classic American push-pull between the rights of the individual and the purported needs of the state.

Tea partiers are giving much thought to the notion that the rights of the individual supersede the rights of the state to act on behalf of everyone in the "community." This, of course, is the essence of the health care bill and its individual mandate. Supporters of national health care take a decidedly utilitarian outlook, as they do for most other actions taken by the government that are supposed to help selected members of the community -- even at the expense of individual rights.

Utilitarianism is at the core of liberal philosophy, and health care reform is a perfect example of its tenets. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy defines a utilitarian act:

...if and only if its performance will be more productive of pleasure or happiness, or more preventive of pain or unhappiness, than any alternative. Instead of "pleasure" and "happiness" the word "welfare" is also apt: the value of the consequences of an action is determined solely by the welfare of individuals.

Note the plural "individuals." The principle of utility has been used the past 60 years to create and expand the welfare state -- many believe to the detriment of individual liberty. And the tea party movement has set itself up as something of a barrier to the notion that this can continue without reference to a debate on what such utilitarian actions mean for the first principle of our founding: the individual's sacrosanct position in the constitutional hierarchy.

They have not only placed themselves athwart history with a sign yelling "Stop!" They also are becoming a sabot thrown into the machinery of government in order to slow it down long enough to have their concerns heard.

The importance of their advocacy becomes apparent when you consider that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have adopted the even more problematic "communitarian" ideal as their template for government. Where the principle of utility is part of the historic, classical liberal definition of government, communitarianism is a more radical ideal that denies individual rights in almost all cases while making forced altruism the dominant force for change.