Freedom, karma, and the Tea Party in Madtown

Feb. 21, 2011

Our small city made the national news this past week. Madtown (otherwise known as Madison) is overflowing with protesters.  The occasion, as most of you know, is the attempt by our Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislature to change the rules on collective bargaining with government employee unions.

Teachers are outraged. Thousands of them (along with thousands of their students) have come to the Capitol to protest.

Ordinarily I am on the side of teachers, but as a liberal-conservative taxpayer I can also see that the Republican majority has solid arguments.  Sunday I was surprised to learn I had company. A columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, Chris Rickert, is known for his usually staunchly liberal outlook.

In his Sunday column, though, Rickert wrote, “Here were thousands of people happily storming the Capitol to lobby for one of the best-compensated public work forces in the country as if they were something akin to the first black entrants to the University of Mississippi. Here were parents happily submitting to the hassle and expense of three days’ worth of school cancellations to accommodate a group that generally pays nothing into their retirement fund, benefits from an anachronistic two-and-a-half-month-long summer vacation, can retire with a monthly check for life at 55, opposes merit pay and gets off work well before business has wrapped up at the Capitol anyway.”

On the other hand, my progressive friend and retired social studies teacher, Michael Brockmeyer, was a leader of the protesters. He hopes to recall (or impeach) the governor.

Michael and I frequently exchange articles by email. He sends me articles from MoveOn.org, Daily Kos, The New York Times and other left-leaning publications. I send him ones from the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Heritage Foundation, and other right-leaning publications. Recently, in an interesting switch, I forwarded an article to him from The New York Times and he, in turn, forwarded an article to me from The Wall Street Journal.

The Times article: “FINDINGS; Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” by John Tierney, one of the Times regular science columnists, reported the findings of a University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. His studies show that “social psychologists are a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility—and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.”

In other words, social psychologists (and, by implication, other social scientists and most professors in U.S. universities) are overwhelmingly liberal, and overwhelmingly opposed to conservative points of view.

Michael, of course, disagreed with the methodology and with the conclusions. He sent me, as a follow-up, another article from the same Jonathan Haidt, “What the Tea Partiers Really Want.” (This one was in The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t say, but I assume Michael strongly disagrees.)

Haidt’s work has relevance to the Madtown protests. He points out that the Tea Party (the leading edge of the Republican Party, who are currently having counter-demonstrations in Madtown) usually trumpets freedom as its central tenet. Two of the movement’s leaders, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, in their Tea Party Manifesto wrote, “we just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others.”

Haidt sees the Tea Party as two sometimes conflicting groups—libertarians (who do prize freedom above all) and conservatives (who prize “karma” as their guiding principle). “The passion of the Tea Party movement,” claims Haidt, weighing in on the conservative side, “is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.”

He goes on to explain that “The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for ‘deed’ or ‘action.’ And the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.”

These two faces of the Tea Party explain why it is opposed to excessive government regulations, high taxes and union shops—they interfere with liberty. It also explains why the Tea Party is opposed to what they consider excessive government bailouts and handouts—they violate karma.

Their biggest conservative beef was not with the Democrats, but with George W. Bush for bailing out Wall Street bankers. The Tea Party faithful think they should have been forced to go into bankruptcy, just as individuals or other corporations have to do when they make bad decisions. Karma plays no favorites.

Their devotion to karma also leads them to oppose government employee unions (they help elect politicians who return the favor by granting them excessive benefits); affirmative action excess (they violate basic fairness standards); welfare programs that reduce incentives for work and marriage (they add to the dependent population and subtract from the producer population); excusing the guilty while blaming the victim (they undermine natural moral laws).  All of these offend their commitment to karma, the “natural law of the universe.”

Studies of Tea Party enthusiasts show that on the median they are above average in intelligence, in educational achievement, in income and, yes, in devotion to freedom as well as “karma.” As mostly middle class workers they don’t resent rich people as such, but they do resent people who get their money from the government in what they see as only too often undeserved loopholes, grants, or “handouts” that have little to do with productive work. (The present tax laws are good examples. Tea Partiers favor a flat tax with no loopholes, no deductions, the same for everyone.)

In the Madtown case, they don’t resent teachers and other government workers. They recognize that they are doing essential work. They do resent any workers who can retire in their fifties with taxpayer-supported pensions and health benefits far superior to the ones they were able to get from their equally productive private sector work. Thus they tend to be strong supporters of Governor Walker and the Wisconsin legislators who are attempting to change the man-made “karmic” rules.

They also are skeptical about the effectiveness of some taxpayer-supported projects. They tend to agree with Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist who wrote, “The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer’s money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family—which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions—began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’”

Tea Party people would agree and, in the present case, might even extend Sowell’s comment to include education expenditures, which have increased dramatically in recent years with no measurable improvement in effectiveness.

Much of this goes back to a News column I wrote back in May of 2010. I called attention then to Timothy Ferris’s new book The Science of Liberty (HarperCollins, 2010), in which he promotes a new way of looking at political labels. He points out that the usual left wing/right wing labels are out of date. They originated in the French Revolution two hundred years ago, when the then liberal radicals sat on the left side of the French National Assembly and the conservative monarchists sat on the right side of the Assembly.

Instead of a straight line with left-wing liberals at one end and right-wing conservatives at the other end, Ferris suggests a triangle. At the apexes you would have Liberal, Progressive and Conservative.

Classical liberals are people (going back to John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine) who lean in the direction of freedom. Progressives (going back to Karl Marx and social-democrats) lean towards equality. And Conservatives (going back to the English philosopher Edmund Burke) lean towards tradition, towards karma.

Like all labels, this oversimplifies. Individual people (and politicians) are always some unique mixture of these three directions. Even though I remain suspicious of all political labeling, the Ferris triangle seems to me more sensible than the traditional left-right continuum. When we apply it to the current Madtown flap we get something like this …

Liberals (classical ones) and conservatives are on the side of the Governor and the Republican legislature. More freedom and better karma. Progressives are on the side of the unions. More equality and better incomes for union members. Who is right? Who will win?

In Wisconsin, traditionally, the progressives have had the upper hand. Fighting Bob Lafollette led the Progressives back in the early 20th century. Wisconsin pioneered in unemployment insurance, welfare benefits and other social-democratic measures.

In the most recent election the Republicans scored major victories in Wisconsin, as well as in other states. Who will prevail in the current tug-of-war-and-words is unknown.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail on the synergy and the conflicts see my well-reviewed program Capitalism and Democracy. You can read about it and buy it on www.hawkhill.com and on www.amazon.com

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