Cato's advice to Tea Partiers: Don't fall in love with government

If the Tea Party aims to restore federalism, then John Samples and Cato have a few pieces of advice for activists. The author of The Struggle to Limit Government: A Modern Political History sees plenty of cause for optimism in the momentum behind the Tea Parties — as long as it focuses on limiting the federal government, enforcing the Constitution, and bringing a new era of federalism to the country. To those ends, Samples offers five pieces of advice, some of which conservatives will likely question:

Essentially, these are the five lessons Samples wants to communicate:

  1. Republicans aren’t always your friends.
  2. Some tea partiers like big government.
  3. Democrats aren’t always your enemies.
  4. Smaller government demands restraint abroad.
  5. Leave social issues to the states.

Items 1 and 5 will probably get very little dispute from Tea Partiers, but the other three are open for debate.  I’d agree that Tea Partiers may not all be solid libertarians — which I’m not, either — but the movement itself is based on more limited government.  I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

Democrats may not always be opponents to Tea Party instincts (I dislike the word “enemies” in the domestic political context), but their current leadership is completely antithetical to those values.  That is why endorsing Democrats for Congress in this cycle, even conservative Democrats like Walt Minnick in Idaho, is probably a bad idea.  If Democrats keep their majority in November, Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team will keep control of the committee chairs and the agenda in the House.  The only way to get rid of that leadership is to elect people other than Democrats to Congress this year, and that means Republicans.  Democrats won’t get rid of their hard-Left leadership until it costs them so many seats that those remaining get the message.

Finally, the “restraint abroad” argument sounds good … in theory.  There are certainly some areas where our presence is less necessary than others, such as Europe after the end of the Cold War.  However, global trade routes still need security, and it would be better to have the US providing it than China, the only other practical option in today’s world, or to have piecemeal enforcement and a rise in piracy.  We still have enemies, especially radical Islamist terrorists, and the only way to prevent attacks on the US is to have a robust forward strategy to disrupt and destroy those networks and plots before they succeed in killing Americans.  It’s been many decades since the two oceans protected the US from attacks and terrorism.  None of these problems will disappear simply because we want to stop spending money on them.

Besides, the Constitution gives the federal government few areas of explicit authority — and national security is one of them.  The biggest problem in our overwhelming federal expansion isn’t the military or our foreign policy; it’s the entitlement programs and the encroachment of Washington onto the jurisdictions of the states.  The fourth point looks a lot more like a Libertarian Party hobby horse than a lesson for Tea Parties to take to heart.

Update: John Samples has an excellent response to my rebuttal at Cato here.  Be sure to read it all.

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