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Commentary: Tea Party fits into American tradition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2010 - Tea Party adherents strongly believe in minimal government, minimal taxation and individual liberty. Although some Tea people were appalled at the behavior of financial institutions that led to the Great Recession, they criticized the role of government in trying to ameliorate the damage. The Tea Party tenets have been widely shared — although not always dominant — throughout the history of our republic.

Our form of government was designed to prevent either the tyranny of the few or of the many. Checks and balances and separation of powers correlate with limited government. Federalism also diffuses power.

Our nation was born out of rebellion against a colonial power. It did not evolve over the centuries as European democracies have. European beginnings in absolute monarchy permitted political cultures more comfortable with strong governments, and their political systems frequently offered less possibility of fragmentation.

Americans railed against tyranny from day one and idealized the frontiersman, acting alone to carve out a home in the wilderness. Later many revered the person who could rise from humble beginnings to become a business tycoon. Although populists and some Progressives fought the power of the trusts more than 100 years ago, they only achieved a limited victory. In Europe, the landed gentry reigned for centuries and considered commercial and industrial occupations to be coarse and not part of the elite. Entrepreneurs there did not occupy quite the same position they have in the United States.

What we seem to forget is that people, whether part of government or the private sector, are all motivated to one degree or another by self-interest.

In government, the goal of elected officials is re-election while bureaucrats want the programs they administer to continue amid comfort and stability. Those in the private sector want to make a profit.

Writing in the 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith described corporations that wanted to maintain their profit level and market share, not necessarily maximize them. By 1990, that had changed. Mergers, divestitures and the growth of multinationals led to the hypermobility of capital and profit maximization. Stock price, not the quality of a product, was the means of evaluation. Deregulation became a goal of Democrats and Republicans alike.

A plant closing bill was adopted that required businesses to provide two months notice of closing to their employees. A number of opponents fought it as an impediment to the free market. Since corporations focus on the pursuit of profit, does that also inculcate a sense of responsibility to community or country? Not necessarily.

Political scientists would say that government comes into play to address those issues the market cannot and will not in order to protect the general public and help those with the least. For example, Hooker Chemical and many other firms polluted land and groundwater over the years. Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate such pollution and prevent its future occurrence. Would companies have acted on their own?

Government at any level carries its own sets of problems. Agencies and their staff are self-interested. They may be inefficient or unaccountable or even both. Politicians certainly exhibit self-interest. This is true anywhere. Institutions and their rules affect behavior. The United States has weak political parties. Basically candidates run on their own and raise their own campaign funds. Interest groups and corporations support candidates, hoping they will cast friendly votes if elected. Elected officials can put pressure on agencies to favor certain interests.

The United States is exceptional in that it has extended greater rights to corporations than other democracies. In the latter half of the 19th century, U.S. Supreme Court decisions extended the protections of the 14th Amendment to business, giving them the rights of individual citizens. Ironically, that amendment was meant to extend liberty to the newly freed slaves. In 2009, the Supreme Court, on a 5-to-4 vote, applied freedom of speech to corporate political campaign giving.

All too often we deal in stereotypes. We see tycoons as hard-working and creative, from Vanderbilt to Gates. They become heroes. Excesses are often overlooked.

On the hand, politicians are seen as corrupt and bureaucrats as purveyors of red tape and either lazy or power hungry.

These stereotypes play into the periodic movements for limiting government’s size and mission. The recent severe economic turmoil and government’s attempts to preserve the financial system and stimulate growth led to the Tea Party.

Government is blamed. It is treading on me.

It will be interesting to see who receives blame for the tragic oil spill in the Gulf: BP, Halliburton or government agencies. The private and the public sector each have pluses and minuses. Americans have habitually seen the pluses of one and the minuses of the other. Taxes are anathema but the hidden costs of private enterprise are overlooked.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.