Lord North insisted that it was within the prerogative of Parliament to tax the Colonies. This was the basis of the Townshend Acts. Those acts were steadily widled away and in 1772 the East India Company was on its knees, a result of renewed taxation by the government. So, Parliament passed the Tea Act which sustained the Townshend duty on tea imported to the Colonies. This allowed the Company to avoid the inefficiencies of the London market by importing tea directly to America. But, to many this violated a central tenant of the British Constitution, that subjects could not be taxed without the approval of their representative body. And, for colonists, this body was not Parliament at Westminster.
As the populations of all other ports of call for Company tea were able to stop the tea from being unloaded and successfully forced those ships to return to England, the colonists of Massachusetts were beset with an obstinate Governor, who would not allow the ships to leave port and insisted that the tea be unloaded and the duty paid. Consequently, a group of disaffected Bostonians dressed as Native Americans forced their way onto the ships and proceeded to dump their entire cargos into the harbor. They were not going to be made to pay a tax, though lawful, that violated what they conceived of as their rights as British subjects.
It is that spirit that current political movements, which have come to be known as ‘tea parties,’ wish to evoke. The purported analogy is not entirely direct. The issue, in this case as in that, is fiscal. But currently, it is not a single government policy that is being protested and the purported infringement of rights is far from as clear as in the historical case. The Whig’s refrain, “No taxation without representation” does not have a contemporary. Rather, the current supposed infringement is of a more broad character.
Very few other generalizations about these groups can be accurately made. Any assertion to the contrary is contemptibly, and very often willfully, ignorant. But, there are some facts to be considered. The impetus for the ‘tea party’ name and their style as public gatherings in public places owes to televised comments made by Rick Santelli of CNBC on the 19th of February while interviewed on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. The panelists were discussing President Obama’s recent efforts to aid homeowners. They queried Santelli for his viewpoint. He gave it. And it seems a not insignificant portion of the electorate agrees with him.
And his point was roughly thus, that it is not the business of the Obama administration, or any administration to meddle in the personal financial situations of ‘struggling homeowners.’ To do so creates a significant moral hazard. But popular discontent is not firstly a result of the supposed moral hazard, but is a matter of the federal government’s ‘right’ to have such a program. Individually, the aid to struggling homeowners does not explain the political unrest but similar efforts, when combined, have had a synergistic effect on opposition sentiment.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, which predates Santelli’s displeasure, the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and finally the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have been large and immediately successive blows to ‘rights’ a segment of the electorate holds as such. The Troubled Asset Relief Program compelled public financial institutions to accept aid from the government in an attempt to instill public confidence and preserve a core financial complex. The Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $550 billion for specific government spending and another $275 billion for specific tax reductions in the hope that a Keynesian style stimulus would avert otherwise lamentable economic outcomes. As to the Patient Protection Act or ‘ObamaCare,’ it remains to be seen, precisely, what the practical import is but the goal generally was to, in part, regulate health insurance providers and provide an insurance product sponsored by the Federal government with the hope of stemming the rise in the cost of healthcare to the public as well as ensure an uninsured segment of the population became so.
A portion of the American electorate feels that their rights as American citizens, ultimately for a form for republican government, have been violated. The ninth and tenth amendments combine to expressly articulate that the federal constitution is not a complete enumeration of the rights of citizenry and that all those powers not expressly laid out in the document are wholly reserved to be exercised by the people and their state governments. For this portion of the public, the powers given expressly to the Federal Government are characterized by the right to establish a postal system, maintain a navy and issue patents and not the power to regulate healthcare, back banks and insurance companies, and to fund special interest projects.
So the ultimate contention of the ‘tea party’ is that the remit of the federal government is circumscribed and the right for self determination in areas outside of that remit, via the democratic apparatus of state government, has been violated and that violation should be opposed. It is when we consider the movement in this light that the analogy to the historical event is most relevant and the evocation most powerful.
By Brandon Mitchell