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Tibor Machan on the US Tea Party, Its Influence and What the Future May Hold

The editors of The Daily Bell are pleased to present an interview with well-known libertarian philosopher Tibor R. Machan (left).

Introduction: Tibor Machan is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and holds the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

MachanMachan, who earned BA (Claremont McKenna College), MA (New York University), and Ph.D. (University of California at Santa Barbara) degrees in philosophy, has written numerous books and papers in the field of philosophy, including on issues surrounding the free-market. Machan was selected as the 2003 President of the American Society for Value Inquiry, and delivered the presidential address on December 29, 2002, in Philadelphia, at the Eastern Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association, titled "Aristotle & Business." He is on the board of the Association for Private Enterprise Education.

Daily Bell: In light of recent US Tea Party victories much in the news, we wanted to get a libertarian and philosophical point of view. Thanks for giving us some time again.

Tibor Machan: I follow the movement's doings by reading both pro and con comments on its candidates and leaders, as well as listening to what some of the active members say in public forums. From what I have learned through reading both supporters and critics, it appears to be a spontaneous assembly of very disgruntled American citizens with what I take to be mostly valid concerns about how the American federal government is administered now.

Daily Bell: Tea Party candidates seem to be squeezing out middle-of-the-road Republican opponents in favor of those who say they want serious tax cuts and a much smaller US federal government. Of course, the final results won't be known until November, but the trends seem obvious now, don't they?

Tibor Machan: I am no spin-doctor, but it occurs to me that if the Tea Party is to have a solid chance at influencing American politics and public policy it will have to pare down its message to certain fundamentals and express this publicly in palatable ways. The one principle that is truly representative of America as the Founders conceived of it is limited government, limited by the principle of individual liberty. Perhaps turning to this message with a clear emphasis on not trying to impose anything else on the country could be successful.

If a Tea Party candidate or leader is pressed for views on matters other than the proper scope of government, the answer should be: "No comment on that since it isn't a part of politics proper, not in a free country!" Yes, it is judicious, prudent to simply refuse to get caught up in all the issues that people may bring to the political table by teaching the lesson that they really aren't political, even if they are on the minds of millions of people.

It is also feasible to look at the Tea Party as a moving target. That is, the Tea Party is not what it was two years ago or even last year. If the movement continues to grow, and there is some evidence that it is, then some of the issues that have been identified with it may subside. Candidates may become more sophisticated and the general literacy level regarding freedom may rise.

Daily Bell: It's a bit confusing, isn't it?

Tibor Machan: Obviously, the Tea Party is a kind of populist assembly of people who have disparate ideas and objectives. Social conservatives, especially, seem to be welcome, what with pretty heavy moralizing as their central pitch. Free market champions, too, tend to be accepted but not if they are also committed civil libertarians who might stand up for illegal immigrants and oppose the vicious War on Drugs.

The overwhelming schism is probably between the libertarian element in the Tea Party and how libertarians and those who call themselves conservatives manage to make common cause or do not. There is also a Democratic libertarian element in the Tea Party but I do not think anyone knows of the numbers of the various groups or factions.

Daily Bell: Are you optimistic about its ultimate success?

Tibor Machan: Tea Party members, leaders, candidates and the like might succeed by pointing out that this country isn't supposed to be a totalitarian system in which politics takes over everything, addresses all issues on the minds of the citizenry. No, one need not have an opinion on creationism, intelligent design, child reading, drug use, and yes, even abortion. Let most of these topics be part of our social discourse, not our political thinking. That way the central Tea Party theme of reigning in the scope of government is kept in focus and the pluralism of the movement can also continue to flourish but within its proper domain, namely, the variety of social positions the huge tent of those who love liberty makes possible.

Daily Bell: What do you think of groups like Dick Armey's Freedomworks? What about Sarah Palin?

Tibor Machan: Armey is, as far as I can tell, the best of what the movement has put forth from the Right Wing/conservative standpoint. Palin's energy is inspiring but once again it is unclear just what political philosophy she wants to promote. There is certainly a divide between the libertarian-oriented wing of the Tea Party and the more conservative factions, and anyone who studies the issue can see it. Palin seems to straddle that divide though her views on US self-defense are much different than the Ron Paul faction of the Tea Party.

One needs to put all this in the context of the American Left Wing as well. I have spent a good deal of my career studying the Left Wing from a philosophical standpoint. Let me tell you the snooty Left is scared stiff of the Tea Party and rolling out its heavy guns to demean it, with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin serving as convenient targets whose lack of academic erudition is held against them in massive articles in prominent magazines like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

Daily Bell: Generally, there seems to be a divide between conservative and libertarian in the Tea Party. What is the difference between a conservative and a classical liberal in your view?

Tibor Machan: Conservatives believe in being guided by a loose combination of traditions, sentiments, faith, and law. American conservatives, however, do have a link with libertarians and classical liberals since the American political system was conceived largely along classical liberal/libertarian lines. A libertarian is hard line about individual rights; they will readily bite the bullet when it comes to social security and other statist welfare policies instead of recoiling from opposing them as many conservatives and even Tea Party folks appear to be. This doesn't lead them to win elections (yet?) but shows them to have integrity, a rare quality among political beasts these days.

Daily Bell: Do conservatives believe libertarians – classical liberals in old-fashioned parlance – are crackpots?

Tibor Machan: No, only primitive, lacking in political sophistication, in deep enough understanding of human nature. The serious conservatives, some of the neo persuasion (Leo Strauss and his followers), see libertarians as failing to be historically savvy and thus propose policies that are at least framed too simply. But there are some very powerful minds among libertarians today from Mises and Cato, not to mention such individuals as Randy Barnett and Richard Epstein – also quite a few good political philosophers. These folks may in time educate the electorate to see that freedom – either of the conservative or libertarian variety – is really the right regime for human beings.

Daily Bell: How far back in time does "conservative" literature go? One could make an argument that libertarian philosophical literature goes back to the Greeks and beyond. Is the "conservative" philosophy in a sense a manufactured movement of modern America, designed as a Republican fall-back to maintain the two-party status of the American political system? If not, why not?

Tibor Machan: Conservatives in America can draw on Plato and Aristotle, too, just as can libertarians draw on Aristotle, Thomas, Locke, and a host of others in support of their understanding of human political affairs. I wouldn't claim that conservatism is manufactured – it is an ancient impulse the opposite of which throughout recorded intellectual history has been radical!

Daily Bell: Here is Dick Armey's Freedomworks Contract From America, below. Do you agree with these points? Does it go far enough?

1. Protect the Constitution
2. Reject Cap & Trade
3. Demand a Balanced Budget
4. Enact Fundamental Tax Reform
5. Restore Fiscal Responsibility & Constitutionally Limited Government
6. End Runaway Government Spending
7. Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care
8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above" Energy Policy
9. Stop the Pork
10. Stop the Tax Hikes

Tibor Machan: Sadly the Constitution isn't a coherent legal document, especially now that it has been driven Leftward or Rightward by the Justices and their supporters in the field of jurisprudence. Prominent law professors such as Cass Sunstein, Richard Posner and Ronald Dworkin, different though they are, do not embrace natural rights or individualism.

As a hard line libertarian, for me the list is at best a stop-gap measure on the road to a bona fide free society. For example, instead of "Enact Fundamental Tax Reform" I would make no bones about demanding the eventual abolition of taxation just as serfdom had been. (It is made, in principle, of the same cloth, a type of involuntary servitude.) Some will say that political reality requires this kind of list, which is largely unprincipled, but I look to the long run and don't hold out much hope for progress within the framework of current politics.

Tea Party people should be wary about being drawn into discussions on matters that are not the proper concern of politics and public affairs. Therein might lie a way to victory, especially now that suspicion with governmental meddling is rife throughout the citizenry. This attitude can easily be linked to the central, crucial tenets of the American political tradition, the founding documents and the thinking of the Founders. That they may not all be entirely palatable in our age will not matter if discussions and proposals are kept to essentials. What is exceptional about America is its limited government tradition and moving away from this is wrong, inefficient, and, yes, un-American.

Daily Bell: Should the drug war be on the agenda as something that should be ended as well?

Tibor Machan: Here is a good one – if the Tea Party could come out four-square against the vicious War on Drugs it might gain some respect from most serious Americans. I am old enough to remember Baby Boomer attitudes to the War on Drugs from the 1960s and 1970s and I have a hard time believing that those who participated in the youth culture of that generation have changed so much that they now believe people who smoke marijuana should be incarcerated. The Drug War consensus is manufactured in this regard. If the drug laws were repealed tomorrow I do believe that the only constituency that would be upset would be law enforcement. Just like Prohibition and alcohol, the War on Drugs is a manufactured consensus, not one that has a great deal of grass-roots support. It is also a terrible tragedy for those who have been caught up in its destructiveness.

Daily Bell: How about public schools?

Tibor Machan: The advocacy of the abolition of public schools has to be on the list of a solid revolutionary program but it has to be framed very well. For example, opponents of the government education system should draw on the work of the Leftist Ivan Illich, who was a fierce critic and based the criticism on serious anti-statism. The trouble with taking on public education, I should note, is that it commands a good deal of support of the vocal suburban middle class in America. Generations have grown up within public schools and tend to believe the positives outweigh the negatives. Of course, they have no exposure to inner city schools and tend to not to dwell on the dropout in American high schools, which is approaching 50 percent. Something needs to be done, but I would not bet that public schools would end up on top of an expanded Tea Party agenda.

Daily Bell: What about the Federal Reserve and central banks in general?

Tibor Machan: The Fed has to go, in time, but as with public schools much education is needed before that can get on the agenda. As Rand once put it, "It is earlier than you think," meaning the American public hasn't been sufficiently educated about the very meaning of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Daily Bell: The "libertarian" wing of the Tea Party might agree with many points of the Contract From America. But overwhelmingly, the libertarian Tea Party movement seems anti-war and wishes to bring US troops home without delay from Afghanistan and Iraq, etc. Many in the libertarian version of the Tea Party movement wish to shut down some or many of the 1,000 or so military and intelligence bases that the US has built and staffs around the world at great expense. Do you agree?

Tibor Machan: I would not wish to be too brazen here since I do not know just what kind of genuine defensive military policy would be suited to America's current geopolitical situation. I have noted along with many others, and your website as well, that the Afghanistan war seems to be coming in for a good deal of criticism, not regarding its purpose or utility but rather its success or failure. For many Americans, the criterion for war regardless of larger strategic issues is whether or not victory is at hand. Short wars, regardless of expense, are more popular than long ones.

Daily Bell: Is there currently much of a difference between Republican and Democratic administrations?

Tibor Machan: Only that the Republicans, in the main, like controlling people's personal morality and private lives while Democrats mainly aim to control people's public morality and economic affairs. But both want to grab power from individuals and have been increasingly successful at doing so over the past decades. Whether groups like the Tea Party can reverse this trend remains to be seen.

I will give you one anecdote. In one discipline I work and teach in, business ethics, the assault on business, on the pursuit of profit – read: private prosperity – is unrelenting! The bias in the literature is overwhelming. But generally if you work in academia, you are exposed to it and unfortunately it is often made clear that people will not go far if they do not adopt at least rhetorically some of the talking points of the Left.

Of course, much of the Right is also wedded to some type of theocracy and will not give that up. The clash of ideologies makes progress a good deal less rapid in my view than it might be otherwise.

Daily Bell: Is the Internet making a difference in all this? How so?

Tibor Machan: It does render delivery of news and communication very rapid. And it has been in part responsible for the resurgence of libertarian thinking via Cato and the Mises Institute because the information it presents is very cheap to place on line. Of course all that may change in the future depending on 'Net neutrality and two-tier billing systems that differentiate 'Net services.

Daily Bell: There was just a Tea Party movement set up in Australia. Is this becoming a worldwide movement? What are the ramifications?

Tibor Machan: Obviously, the Tea Party's populism isn't confined within country borders. I am less certain, I should say, of the Tea Party's penetration in Europe. If there is one theme the Tea Party endorses it is that the entitlement system of public policy is economically fatal and Europeans are so far too wedded to it. They tend, on the whole, to believe that government is Big Daddy and must look out for them all.

Daily Bell: Time will tell. Additional books our readers should look at? Articles?

Tibor Machan: There is a flood of works coming from The Mises and Cato Institutes and other think tanks such as the Reason Foundation. Fox Business Network is now regularly showing programs such as "FreedomWatch" with Judge Andrew Napolitano and "Stossell," with John Stossell (formerly with ABC TV), which are nearly consistently libertarian ... and not in an economic reductionist way either.

Daily Bell: Interesting. Thank you for making space in your busy schedule to answer these timely questions.

Tibor Machan: You're welcome.

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