How to stop the Tea Party: a response to Sam Harris

Here are two ways to stop the Tea Party and other libertarians.

First, progressive Democrats should fight to take over the Democratic Party — the way Tea Party activists recently took over much of the GOP, and the way religious conservatives took it over about a decade ago.  In short, as described in This Is How To Beat The Republicans and Tea Party. progressives should get involved in their local Democratic Party, by becoming a Precinct Committee Officer,  Precinct Captain, or other activist.  Angry conservatives take over the GOP. Angry progressives too often flee the Democratic Party and join an advocacy group or third party.

The second way to fight the Tea Party is to educate people about how wrong-headed libertarian ideology is, so that middle class voters wise up and stop voting against their own self-interest. Conservatives have done all in their power to corrupt, starve, weaken, and denounce government. To fight back, progressives need to market good government and fair taxation as forces for good.

Often libertarians compare taxation to theft, and in recent years they have become angrier, bolder, and more influential. I don’t know what explains their hatred of government.  This is a question, perhaps, for psychologists. But if progressives are going to win this war of ideas, they need to attack head on the right wing arguments against government.

What got me thinking anew about this topic was an email from author Sam Harris, who recently published an article (“How Rich is Too Rich?”). In the article Harris suggested, like Warren Buffet, that billionaires should pay more in taxes. The response from Harris’ readers surprised him. He got lots of hate mail from libertarians, including, for example, this gem: “You are scum sam. unsubscribed.”

As Harris says in his blog

You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.

One part of the problem is incorrect framing.   Harris himself is guilty of this. For example, in his blog Harris wrote, “They [libertarians] consider any effort the State could take to prevent the most extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty to be indistinguishable from Socialism.”

But the issue isn’t just redistribution of wealth from the rich to the lower classes — forcing the rich to help the poor.  That makes it sound like theft. (Indeed, Harris himself says in that blog, “I agree that everyone should be entitled to the fruits of his or her labors and that taxation, in the State of Nature, is a form of theft. But it appears to be a form of theft that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.”) More fundamental than redistribution of wealth is the fact that we need government to provide various protections and services that the market system will not provide. Without those protections and services, billionaires couldn’t earn or enjoy their wealth.   So the rich simply aren’t paying their fair share of the bills.

We need to pay for courts, police, regulatory systems, disaster relief, roads, scientific research, public health, education, and parks — as well as the imperialist wars that Bush and Cheney started.   Plus, the national debt is something like $14 trillion, and that bill needs to be paid.   One can argue that often government is corrupt and wasteful — and it was especially corrupt and wasteful between 2000 and 2006, when Republicans controlled government.  But to say that government should be minimized overlooks all the good it does — when it’s not mismanaged.

Government serves the Common Good –known in the US Constitution as the General Welfare. Often it provides services more cheaply and equitably than the private market system. (Health care is an example.)

The best analogy is this: Government is like a computer’s operating system.  An operating system provides fundamental services and protections that allow user programs to run. Without an operating system, your computer would be a useless heap of metal and plastic.  Similarly, governments provide various services and protections. Without government, and the taxes that support it, business and society cannot thrive. For example, the sub-prime crash was largely due to reckless deregulation. And when the system crashed, who came to the rescue? Uncle Sam.

In fact, without government we’d be hunter-gatherers.

The libertarian mindset is sociopathic.  Even the US Constitution calls for a strong central government to promote the General Welfare.  Libertarians want to run their programs on a computer with no operating system.

Alas, in recent years we’ve gotten more bad government than good government — which is why things are heading downhill. But the solution isn’t to get rid of government; the solution is to fix government, by stopping the corruption and mismanagement.

For further reading, see

Government is like a computer’s operating system: a response to libertarians.
Bring on the Reagan Counterrevolution (a defense of Big Government against libertarian attacks),
Government: Unproductive? Wasteful? Corrupt?,

and these websites:  Government is Good, Government is Great, and  The General Welfare.

I agree, by the way that there’s too much redistribution of wealth: from the middle class to rich, and as David Vicks points out, this needs to be undone.

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