So I was a guest on the local Tea Party radio program yesterday. I disagreed with the tea partisans about everything--mainly to provoke discussion but also because I'm not exactly their kind of conservative. We parted on good terms, but with them being a bit stunned by my recalcitrance. They also me immediately invited me for more. Next time, they'll be even be better prepared with facts and arguments to set me straight.
BUT it was refreshing to see ordinary citizens so concerned--and so self-educated--about basic constitutional issues. According to Alexis de Tocquevile (who is--I hope you've figured out--an authority for me on just about everything), the vice of modern democracy is INDIVIDUALISM. He doesn't mean of course the "rugged individualism" or John Wayne or even the entrepreneurial individualism praised by our Randian libertarians. He means apathetic withdrawal into a small circle of friends and family, a withdrawal based on the mistaken judgment that, in general, love and hate are more trouble than their worth. Individualism is a kind of "heart disease" that turns active citizens into passive dependents, a disease that can morph democratic self-government into a kind of despotism.
Individualism is what's mocked through exaggeration on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and SEINFELD, and more seriously or ponderously in Franzen's novel FREEDOM.
Here's an example of our radio conversation: Tea Party guy wants me to agree that the Department of Education is unconstitutional, and that's because our Founders intended to education to be controlled by the states and localities--to be responsive to the will of active citizens and not pointy-headed experts.
My response: The Department is not unconstitutional. Most of the leverage the Department has over the states is in the form of grants, which the states and localities are free to refuse. And in any case education has kind of emerged as a right of citizens, and the Fourteenth Amendment has plausibly been construed in a way to limit the discretion of the states over whether and how to provide access to at least primary education. But I do agree that there ought to be more local control, and much of what's wrong with education in our country has to do with perverse professionalization, expert bureaucratization, needlessly meddlesome accreditation, and the oxymorons schools of education. Citizens should work through their legislators state and national to reverse those pernicious trends.
Tea Party guy: That means the real problem is the Sixteenth Amendment, which gives the national government too much easy access to too much money through the income tax on individuals. We need to repeal that amendment and explicitly deny the national government the power to tax incomes--that is, to tax productivity. We should have a genuinely Fair Tax or taxes--taxes on consumption, which don't affect productivity.
Me: Aren't taxes on consumption regressive? The average guy has to spend virtually all his income on consumption--on stuff he and his family needs. The rich guy can afford to shield most of his income from a consumption tax. Tea Party guy no. 1: Our scheme includes a way to deal within that issue through redistributing consumption revenue to those stuck with paying too a high percentage of their gross incomes for this tax. Tea Party guy no. 2: Life is unfair, and it's just immoral and counterproductive to tax productivity, etc.
I could easily go on: But it is surely refreshing, you all must agree, to see ordinary citizens revisiting FIRST PRINCIPLES.