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.

Communitarianism posits the notion that all rights and privileges flow from the community at large and take precedence over individual rights. Taken in small doses, communitarianism can be a necessary adjunct to modern governance in that it promotes public-private partnerships that are much preferred to the classical social democratic top-down solutions offered to address society's problems.

But the modern Democratic Party is not interested in small doses of anything. They appear to have adopted quite a bit of communitarian philosophy in attempting to "remake America" by declaring all sorts of "positive rights" that citizens are due as members of the community.

The tension between the Constitution's clear, unambiguous celebration and protection of individual rights and the practical need for some form of communitarian ideology to which government aspires has become painful in the early 21st century. Schemes to promote "fairness" and "equality" are most susceptible to this impulse, but lately, as with national health care, we see the ugly facade of "positive rights" rearing up to overshadow the Constitution's conservation of the individual's primacy in American society.

Tea partiers are raising questions about the intent of the Constitution. Was it really supposed to guarantee someone's access to health insurance? Not guaranteed health care, which may be a different kettle of fish entirely, but using government to mandate that the individual be forced to purchase a specific product for the betterment of the community? How does one square that requirement with the Constitution's protection of individual rights? Why should the rights of the community -- if indeed this is the case -- trump an individual's right to choose otherwise?

The clash of interests represented by the modern welfare state and the tea party may not be new, but it has entered a new level of intensity. It may rightly be asked why  that opposition to this expansion of the welfare state has become so organized and passionate now. It's not as if Republicans haven't contributed to the growth of government, so where were the tea parties when George Bush was passing his massive Medicare drug benefit or had his Department of Education stick their noses in our school systems by creating No Child Left Behind?

National health insurance reform and the runaway deficit have clearly become a tipping point for the tea party movement. It is also clear that while excessive spending and the health care takeover have been the catalysts for protest, the underlying motivation for the movement is the belief that the Constitution has been stretched, mutilated, mangled, and shamelessly used to justify granting the federal government power it was never intended to have -- power it has acquired to the detriment of individual rights.

There can be no absolutist position on personal liberty, just as there is no communitarian justification for fashioning a society where equality of outcomes is guaranteed by the state. For in the end, the tension between the rights of the individual and the needs of the community is a healthy manifestation of an evolving society. What makes the tea party movement so significant is that for the first time in a very long time, the supporters of individual liberty not only have organized effectively to make their voices heard, but actually have a strong case to make regarding the primacy of the individual over the state as it relates to the current agenda of the Democratic majority.

The president and his party are venturing a bridge too far in this ancient war between the forces of constitutionally limited government and the communitarians who seek to use government to further their altruistic impulses. And the tea party movement, by shining the light of constitutional intent and first principles on the communitarians' designs, have rekindled an interest in the meaning and purpose of our founding document with ordinary Americans.

They may not succeed in actually shrinking the size of government. But the tea party movement has put the communitarians on notice that from here on out, they better have stronger arguments to make for their concepts of redistributionism and "social justice" than they showed in ramming through national health care.