Arnold Kling  

Impressions of Tea Partiers

The New Matt Ridley Book... Cato Memories...

I am missing Matt Ridley, Arthur Brooks, and Jeff Miron speak in DC this week because I am in Indiana. The first leg of my trip was to do a "house concert" for a group of about 35 people, many of whom are sympathetic to the Tea Party movement.

By the way, Indiana is the home of the latest "family-values" Congressman to be caught in a sex scandal. My sense is that Tea Partiers are angry but not surprised. They have come to expect very little from politicians.

They asked intelligent, informed questions, mostly about the prospects for our monetary and fiscal system. They were not the equivalent of econ grad students by any means, but they were definitely more interested in current events, better read, and much more engaged than the students I had taught a few years ago at George Mason in "economics for the citizen," which is a class for non-majors. My guess is that the people in my audience had less formal education than my non-economist liberal friends, but they were more diverse and independent in their thinking. For these people, unlike my liberal friends, it is obvious why a "right to health care" is a misguided notion.

I say this because President Obama and the media are likely to focus attention on the stupidest lines that come out of the Tea Party movement. We are going to read over and over again that there is no public support to cut government spending, that the populists have no ability to govern, and so forth. I know that there are polls that purport to show that. But we have not run the experiment in which political leaders explain that spending needs to be cut, they cut spending, and people react to the reality afterward. My guess is that such an experiment would fare well, which may be why political leaders are reluctant to try it.

The political class does not want to take the Tea Party movement at its word. Instead, it wants to dismiss them as angry, bigoted, and ignorant. That is an obviously self-serving approach for the political class, and I think it is unfair.

When I discussed the knowledge-power discrepancy, which is the theme of Unchecked and Unbalanced, the audience understood. The political class does not. In that sense, in the conflict between the Tea Party movement and the political class, it is the political class that is in the wrong.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (31 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

Very sorry to see you use the term liberal as you do.

But glad to see you talking about the Tea Party movement.

I think that some libertarian academic bloggers speak within an implied conversation that has presuppositions quite different from those of the implied conversation of the Tea Partyers and Glenn Beck. The more that the latter are regarded favorably the less the formers' presuppositions seem appropriate.

Relative status, anyone?

david writes:

You mistake disagreement for misunderstanding.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ Daniel Klein,
"I think that some libertarian academic bloggers speak within an implied conversation that has presuppositions quite different from those of the implied conversation of the Tea Partyers and Glenn Beck. The more that the latter are regarded favorably the less the formers' presuppositions seem appropriate."

Please translate. I literally didn't understand what you wrote.

Lucas writes:

@david: I am skeptical--that is, I suspect that politicians are far more likely to be unaware of the problem of concentrated power and dispersed knowledge than to understand it and dismiss it. That said, I am open to the idea that you might be right in some cases.

Do you know of particular times when politicians (or other members of the concentrated power group) have said something like, "Some people might believe that concentrating power over a very complex discipline in Washington is impractical and dangerous. However, it is not for the following reasons..."?

8 writes:

Arnold has it exactly right, based on what I see in mainstream political debate and what I hear on the ground. There will be no co-opting of this movement because it is not understood or appreciated by even the GOP leadership. This makes it a very high-stakes game, or high volatility situation. i.e., the Washington elite are pricing a "Tea Party" victory in the same manner as Wall Street priced CDOs in 2006.

Any politician who is ambitious and would like to be in the leadership, governors office, with a potential shot at President, should take advantage of this mispricing by the political market. Your mistake will be in running too far to the center or mainstream to avoid loss in 2010, because that same position will assure you victory in 2012.


Your analogy is kinda unfortunate though. Wall street was pricing CDOs TOO HIGH in 06. Thats what I got when I started on your analogy.

Norman writes:

While it seems obvious that the media will focus on the least intelligent and articulate in the Tea Party movement, I still don't find the idea that they are willing to cut spending credible. Until I see a constituency that is willing to cut spending *in their own district* and *on benefits they receive* regardless of whether spending is cut elsewhere (ie, not as a bargaining chip), then to my mind they aren't willing to cut spending.

Now, if the Tea Party movement gets some congressmen elected this November who go on to consistently refuse federal spending in their districts, I'll happily change my mind.

silvermine writes:

So... you won't believe unless people specifically support keeping their taxes high and having "benefits" only go to other people? That's not what they're asking for, and it's a ridiculous strawman.

I'm not sure why people find it so had to believe that thousands (or millions) of people want taxes AND benefits decreased across the board and want government to get the hell away.

inquiring minds writes:

I'm sure there are some very nice people amongst them. And if it were principally people like Arnold Kling that they were listening to, I'd be quite pleased with this movement. But Arnold Kling spoke to a group of 35, whereas the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and now Lou Dobbs are the one's they're turning to listen to in droves. When you keep company like that, I don't think it's unfair to raise questions about their dedication to open markets and other liberties that a libertarian would hold dear.

And where were these people when George W. Bush was running the economy into a ditch? Why the sudden rise to prominence, just as the economy tanks, the Republicans are pushed into becoming an opposition party, and large corporate interests would love to have a 'popular' movement against regulatory reform. Former Republican leader and corporate lobbyist Dick Armey Freedomworks organization certainly seem to play an important coordinating role in their movement:

I don't mean to deny that there is a real movement of people here, but let's step back as social scientists to ask why now? You seem to suggest it's because of Romney's radical health care reform and other 'socialist' over reach. But Paul Krugman (who I often disagree with) points to a recent academic suggesting it's just the economy stupid:

"Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner... find a striking correlation between economic performance and political extremism in advanced nations: in both America and Europe, periods of low economic growth tend to be associated with a rising vote for right-wing and nationalist political parties. The rise of the Tea Party, in other words, was exactly what we should have expected in the wake of the economic crisis."

Any thoughts?

Ryan writes:

inquiring minds:

It's a coupling of factors: the economy (as you pointed out), the intertubes / 24/7 news cycle (information dispersement), and something called, 'buyer's remorse' -- there may be a better term than that though.

David C writes:

So why should I trust a non-representative sample of 35 people over, say, the NYT/CNN poll?

hacs writes:

It's interesting that they are older and prefer lower taxes and higher deficits. From a general point of view, they represent a shortsighted (it's the real problem) political agenda which is oriented for their interests, exclusively (it is not nice, but it's lawful).

Todd Fletcher writes:

inquiring minds,
I wouldn't say that the Tea Party are "political extremists", in Krugman's phrase, though they are right wing and nationalist. I've only been to one Tea Party rally and the biggest issue seemed to be fiscal responsibility. I'm not really sure that they oppose the welfare state, at least in it's milder forms. I think they just want to keep the country from bankruptcy. At least that's the way it looked to me. If I'm wrong and fiscal responsibility is extreme in today's America, well, we've got bigger problems than I thought.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David C,
I read the CNN poll you cited and it supports Arnold. Look at the percentage who want smaller government.

BZ writes:

@inquiring minds -- Although they constitute a distressing minority amongst the Tea Partiers, I can tell you where some of them were during the Bush years: holding signs on street corners in the middle of Summer for Ron Paul.

David C writes:

David Henderson, the general public also claims they want a smaller government. That's because they don't know what the government does. It's when you look at specifics that the trouble starts. They only asked one on government spending, and this was it:
"Are the benefits from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare worth the costs of those programs?"
The Tea Partiers are only 14 points more libertarian than the general public on this, and reductions in those two programs should be their signature issue. The poll doesn't ask about the military, but I very much doubt they'd want reductions more than the general public. I'm guessing liberals on the military would come out as just as libertarian as Tea Partiers are on retirement planning. Tea Partiers are only slightly more libertarian on the Federal Reserve, another thing that is supposedly a signature issue of theirs.

Then look at social issues, and you'll find Tea Partiers are more authoritarian than the public on every single issue except gun control.

David N. Welton writes:

I too am curious about why all of these people are suddenly up in arms now, rather than during the Bush years, which saw one of the largest expansions of the federal government ever.

I am not a libertarian, but think it's a principled stance worthy of respect, and, indeed think that the real ones were quite unhappy with Bush and a lot of the Republican establishment. But a lot of the Tea Party people seem to just be extremely conservative, and not what I would call libertarians. At least from what I can see from abroad... perhaps I'm wrong.

Justin P writes:

People will see in the Tea Party what they want to see. The Left wants to see racism, so they look for it and find the few who are...even though they look past the racism in the Dem party.

The Right wants to see a conservative coalition, so they look for it and find it, still erroneously thinking that they (the Right) have any credibility on small government after the Bush years.

Re: "I too am curious about why all of these people are suddenly up in arms now, rather than during the Bush years?"

Is it so hard that the Stimulus, TARP, Obamacare...could have been the straw that broke the camels back? Also, there are plenty of Democrats, who did harp against Bush, and plenty of Libertarians who harped against Bush as well. But as I said above, you only see what you want to see. You don't want to see the scores of people that were against Bush, not every single republican was lock step on the side of Bush for 8 years. It's much easier to wave your hand and say that all republicans are exactly the same and label them all Bush's lazy and dishonest.

ziel writes:

David C - from the poll:

"If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?"

Tea Partiers chose smaller/fewer 90% vs. 50% for the general public, while only 4% of TPers chose bigger/more vs. 37% g.p.

That's quite a difference.

Their views on SS/Med are indeed not that different from the general public. But of course these are programs that benefit the middle class and which many of them might even be on. It's only rational to support programs that support you, particularly when you're a taxpayer.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Right now the smaller government Tea Partiers support is a gut instinct, and a good one at that. But how to get there - to that place of a smaller government? Think of all the institutions and organizations governments support. Then ask, how has that government support affected the very pricing structures organizations create which in themselves threaten to bankrupt the government? Especially health care.

Nico writes:

I'm sure there are many reasonable small government types among them, but, as inquiring minds notes, nost of them seem to be driven by nationalism and other not very (classically) liberal sentiments.

I think Arnold wants to believe in the possibility of a populist libertarian movement, one that jives with his notion of the elites and progressives versus the common man, but I don't think that's really tenable. We have big government because that's what almost everyone wants. Many say they want small government but want to keep Soc Sec, medicare, and a massive military. Most probably favor the pork projects in their particular area, and one can see what that adds up to. Concentrated benefits, diffuse costs...

There won't be smaller government until the situation gets tangibly more dire or until the basic logic of politics changes, or more people become principled libertarians. I'm not holding my breath for the last two.

Liam writes:


I think what Daniel Klein was trying to say was that Libertarian Academic Bloggers (Like You, Arnold and Bryan I suppose) presume through your posts and comments, things about The Tea Partyers and Glenn Beck that are different what from what they are actually saying and that the more favourably people look at them the more inappropriate those conversations are.

I could be wrong though.

Liam writes:

I have my own thoughts as to why the Tea Party rising now and not previously when the Bush Administration was rapidly expanding Government.

I think it is a combination of the economy, the bailouts, Healthcare Reform and the fact that the Republicans lost. It has sparked an intense focus on Government involvement and a perception of paying off the rich.

If you see the party you support lose credibility then you tend to look towards what you see as the reason for that failing. The knee-jerk reaction is to turn back to an earlier time. A time when they feel the Republican Party had stronger values that coincided with their own. Glenn Beck is a master at that kind of nostalgia. (The fact that the past was not nearly as good as now is inconsequential. It's the perception of the past that counts.)

So they talk about smaller Government, lower taxes, family values (which is akin to anti-abortion and anti-same sex unions) but if the Republicans still had control of the White House then I feel this grassroots movement would not have happened. There would have been no healthcare reform, so no catalyst to give them momentum. Instead there would have been more focus on “security” (which again is not real security but only the perception of security. Remember, “We fight over there so we don’t have to fight over here”?) If you start talking about cutting spending then you can just play the Patriot card and tell them it will endanger the troops and sure enough they will just pipe right up. Regardless that the troops shouldn’t even be there.

If the Tea Partiers want reduced Government then they could easily point out the lack of necessity for Foreign Bases and the amount of money that would be saved by closing them (“But that would endanger the troops!”)

All in all I don’t think this movement will gain much traction but I do believe some savvy politicians will take advantage of the situation and use them to propel them to a higher office.

MernaMoose writes:

inquiring minds,

It's really not that hard to understand if you think about events over the past several years.

First Bush got voted into office, on something that (originally) resembled a "smaller government, lower taxes, humble foreign policy" platform. What we got was the exact opposite.

Then we got a choice between Obama and McCain. McCain was running neck and neck up to the moment he wanted to stop the campaign and go push the bailouts through congress. Obama took it from there and never had to look back again.

But then we get both the R's and D's pushing the bailouts through. Then we get Obamacare rammed through on top of it. All of this happening against clear popular majority wishes.

This series of events really did break the proverbial camel's back. And the fact that the Tea Party happened so recently, is in part a reaction to the very real dissatisfaction with Bush with so many on the Right (in spite of the BS the Left & MSM loves to try and tell us to the contrary).

Bush wasn't good, but he was probably the lesser evil throughout his tenure. Gore would very probably have brought us Carbon Taxes writ large if he'd won. Kerry would likely have done the same, plus maybe ObamaCare too.

I still believe McCain would be in the White House right now if he hadn't gone whole hog on the bailouts. But McCain made himself look and sound so much like Obama that, what's the point in voting against Obama?

I've always said: the Iraq war is wrong and expensive, and Afghanistan today is highly debatable even when you grant its advocates all benefits of the doubt. But wars eventually end and can be paid for.

ObamaCare and Carbon Taxes (of whatever incarnation) are forever. People may not think this way explicitly but I strongly suspect they get it intuitively.

So in the end people have to do something like the Tea Party, because both established parties are ignoring what is clearly popular sentiment. And it's happening now because we've just reached the point where, enough is enough.

MernaMoose writes:


When I discussed the knowledge-power discrepancy, which is the theme of Unchecked and Unbalanced, the audience understood. The political class does not.

Your audience may have understood. But Corporate America doesn't get it any more than Uncle Sam does. I quickly learned as I've moved more and more into management circles, that you won't last long if you even suggest that We the Leaders may not actually, really know what the hell is going on out there. That kind of talk will get you labeled as someone who's weak, has no vision, and "just can't cut it".

This knowledge-power story is a theme that the American population needs to have beaten thoroughly into its soul. Because it is so contrary to the EuroSocialist Central Planner Theme that is so clearly dominant (and so clearly wrong) in the US today.

Steve writes:

As a libertarian who has not attended any tea party events, my impressions of the tea party is that it's a branch out by republicans to attempt to curry favor among limited government supporters. If support for limited government picks up they have some plants on the inside.

The question I'd really like to see the group polled with is: Should church and state be separate? Unfortunately I think I know what the answer would be. As with many "libertarians", many tea partiers simply want power to transfer from the federal government to the state or local governments so they can make more socially limiting laws. These are the folks that are excited about the Sarah Palins and the Ron Pauls of the world.

BZ writes:

Steve -

Buddy! Sarah Palin and Ron Paul supporters are not the same people. As for your accusation that libertarians are a bunch of closet theocrats, I really don't know what to say. If that seems reasonable to you, then I guess socialists are a bunch of free-market zealots, economists believe demand curves slope downwards, and squares are also round.

BZ writes:

Oops.. can't even get sarcasm right today.. obviously I meant "upwards". :/

Steve writes:

BZ - Perhaps I could have been more clear. The impression I'm getting of tea partiers, mostly from the mainstream media(MSM), is that they're closet theocrats.

I think many "libertarians" also fall into that camp. I certainly don't think it's most libertarians, but a significant number. I think this group is the group that is coming across in the MSM.

I think Sarah Palin falls into that camp. To a lesser extent, I think Ron Paul does as well.

Would I rather have Ron Paul as president than Obama or Mccain? Of course. Do I think Ron Paul believes in social liberties? Not Consistently.

mulp writes:

But we have not run the experiment in which political leaders explain that spending needs to be cut,

Clinton talked about spending cuts, as well as tax hikes, and accomplished a number of both in his first Democratic Congressional session by "ramming it through by reconciliation, and then with the good economy the reduced deficit helped create, cut some more government spending. And he talked about it, with conservatives extracting sound bites like "the era of big government is over".

Obama talked a lot about cutting health care costs, as others have, like Clinton before, and did so in the context of passing national Romneycare. Romneycare isn't the best way to accomplish cost control as we can see in the Swiss health reform. The "public option" is a way of controlling costs based on the evidence in dozens of other nations. But the public reaction was very clear when it came to those approaches to cutting costs - cutting costs was bad. The public option was bad because it would limit care or cut profits or pay. The cuts to Medicare Advantage subsidy over and above Medicare was bad because it cut insurer profits which would cut the extra benefits over and above Medicare the insurers offered to get the profits. The health reform was bad because employers would shift health care costs to government run exchanges which would cut the benefits as costs were shifted to the employee.

Republican opposition to health reform was argued on the basis of the consequences of the cost cutting that would occur, the cuts in Medicare Advantage cutting the extra incentive benefits offered. The employer cutting health care benefits and shifting the costs to employees because the government provides a way for managers to be insured even with preexisting conditions so they can cut costs and shift the costs to the employees, which would mean government would be cutting health care benefits as a means of cutting costs.

Employers are integral to the government's health care strategy for providing health care to everyone. When employers covered more of the people, the other part of the system, the public hospitals were viable and affordable. But costs for both have been rising rapidly, more rapidly in the US than elsewhere, so the entire debate about health care systems is about costs.

As best as I can tell, the libertarian solution is to blame the sick for being sick in order to justify not treating them if they don't have money for treatment. After all, Stephen Hawking made the bad choices that made him dependent on the NHS. That is a cost of the kinds of cuts called for by libertarians which aren't fully explained by libertarians.

But at its root, the debate on health care systems is all about costs, so don't say that no politicians talk about costs and consequences of cutting the cost of government.

MernaMoose writes:


As best as I can tell, the libertarian solution is to blame the sick for being sick in order to justify not treating them if they don't have money for treatment.

This proves that you have absolutely no understanding of what the libertarian solution is.

The one solution that might actually cut health care costs, is the solution that no liberal is willing to contemplate: free markets. It is the solution that libertarians advocate.

The system we have, which has done such a marvelous job of driving up costs, bears little of no resemblance to a free market.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top