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Review of Give Us Liberty

August 28th, 2010 by Bill Brown · 23 Comments · Book Reviews, Politics

Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto

The Tea Party movement represents the best hope of halting the federal Leviathan. We have written many words on the subject. In fact, several of us have participated in events for the first time in our lives. However, the whole affair elicits trepidation and pause. While a lot of the slogans, statements, and views are refreshing and spot on, a popular movement attracts those who would get out in front of it and use it to achieve real power.

Its decentralized nature is a blessing and a curse. The lack of central leadership means that no one person or group controls the message; its fractious nature engenders distrust of anyone who would try to do so. In a way, this makes the tea party a marketplace of ideas: the best ones garner the support and crackpots get shunted to the periphery. But with this dispersion comes the risk of a tent too open, unprincipled and unable to advance its ends effectively. The tea party movement rallied in support of Scott Brown’s election to the Senate to replace the late Ted Kennedy. He scared the dickens out of the Administration because he could play a pivotal role in blocking their agenda. But he’s already playing politics as usual, and displaying his superficial support for limited government. These sorts of hollow victories will continue to plague the tea party movement until and unless it firms up its core set of principles.

There are those who would co-opt the movement. Sarah Palin, for one, desperately wants to be the face of the Tea Party. She certainly stands the best chance of doing so with her outside-the-Beltway pedigree, down-home style, and incessant demagoguery. Others seek to steer it towards anti-abortion and anti-immigrant stances. The Republican Party certainly wants to assimilate its members back into the fold—practically taking for granted that the GOP is the movement’s natural home.

DIck Armey’s book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, recognizes all of this. It’s a clear, delimited outline of how the movement should proceed. If DIck Armey, a former economics professor and one of the principal authors of the 1994 Contract with America, and this book take hold of the movement, then we’re in better shape than I had feared.

In Chapter 4 “What We Stand For,” Armey writes:

You’ll notice this is a short chapter, and that is intentional. It just doesn’t take a lot of words to say that 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. We are endowed with certain unalienable rights and delegate only some of our power to the government to protect those rights. Defenders of limited government understand that the U.S. Constitution lists the specific powers it delegates. If it’s not mentioned, we retain that power.

He gets it. When he says that “Tea Partiers value equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes” and “America is different because we are all about the individual over the collective” (by way of introducing a quote from The Fountainhead), this is the sentiment and direction the Tea Party needs to go if it is to fulfill the legacy inherent in its moniker. A return to the individualism of the past will go a long way towards righting the wrongs of modern America.

Give Us Liberty has no philosophical flaws, mostly because it confines itself to defending liberty and freedom in the vein of the Founding Fathers. Stylistically, it is a bit ham fisted about its FreedomWorks connection. The two authors are the think tank’s chairman and president, and it sometimes reads like FreedomWorks’ new employee orientation manual. The organization has done great work guiding and fomenting the movement, so I can overlook the institutional cheerleading.

Obviously, historical America, while freer than today, contained the seeds of the modern welfare state. In failing to properly delineate the limits of government and to mount a thorough defense of individual rights, our ancestors left far too much unsaid and uncodified. The moral code of self-sacrifice and the collective over the individual opened a door to the statist twentieth century—the ostensible defenders of capitalism (the conservatives), deprived of a moral ground by sharing the collectivists premises, could only point to the utilitarian benefits of freedom. Such a meek defense quickly fell and led to the federal overreach we have today.

A proper defense of capitalism and freedom requires an explicit commitment to individual rights. The challenge, then as now, is to mount a defense of property rights. Life and liberty are fairly easy to protect: people generally like to live and don’t cotton to people telling them what to do. But standing up for property rights is difficult under a morality of altruism and self-sacrifice. Arguing that Wal-Mart can build a super center wherever it wants—providing it can acquire the land—or that a single mother has no claim on your income runs afoul of the conventional view that the collective trumps the individual or that you are your brother’s keeper.

But property rights are the most fundamental of the individual rights because we cannot sustain our life or liberty without being able to produce. Unless the Tea Party movement can elaborate a capable defense of property, it will fail at shoring up our freedom. That defense must necessarily be based on Ayn Rand’s ethical system of egoism, which offers a consistent, principled justification in opposition to the conventional morality of altruism. Armey’s book is not that defense.

Without this concomitant cultural change, any political success will be short-lived. A movement that espouses individual rights yet allows that man has a duty to his fellow man has accepted a contradiction that will tear it apart at the first conflict. But the way things are heading today, electing a crop of politicians that at least pay lip service to limited government and economic freedom might give us the time needed to effect such a culture swing. At the very least, it will delay the dictatorship that is inevitable down the statist path.

23 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave B

    “That defense must necessarily be based on Ayn Rand’s ethical system of egoism, which offers a consistent, principled justification in opposition to the conventional morality of altruism.”

    I agree 100 percent. Unfortunately, of all Rand’s revolutionary ideas, her morality of rational egoism seems to be the most difficult for people to understand, let alone accept.
    Altruism is so ingrained in our society, that this will be one of the toughest battles of them all. And I think it needs to be one of the first; how can there be progress anywhere else unless/or until altruism disappears?

  • Richard

    So is there really no talk in the book about Christianity and religion? It doesn’t sound like it from your review, and I’d hope not. But that’s quiet surprising. Armey seems like an all right sort, it just seems like religion always creeps in somehow, someway.

  • Bill Brown

    As far as I can remember, there are no religious overtones in the book. But I bought it on the Kindle so I just did a couple quick searches:

    “Christian”: zero results
    “Religion”: 1 match (quoting the First Amendment)
    “Religious”: zero results
    “God”: zero results
    “Altruism”: zero results
    “Duty”: 1 match (referring to the tax that motivated the original Tea Party)
    “Ayn Rand”: 3 matches (two praising Atlas Shrugged and one about The Fountainhead)

    It is an impressive book.

  • Richard

    Sounds like it’s pretty delimited.

  • Steve D

    “Altruism is so ingrained in our society, that this will be one of the toughest battles of them all.

    An not just our society but throughout all of history and I suspect if we ever meet sapient beings not from earth they will have the same problem. Why is this? What is the attraction of altruism? I believe it is more than just poor thinking although that is certainly part of it.”

  • jack

    The increases of the top income earners come out of the pockets of the poor.Somehow we’ve allowed a doctrine of mammon and selfishness to replace community. it’s a shared obligation of the entire society and everyone has to pitch in

  • madmax

    I believe it is more than just poor thinking although that is certainly part of it.

    I have often wondered if altruism has its origin in our evolutionary past. Ancient hunter-gatherer societies of 50 to 100 people might have had a need for some type of egalitarian or sacrificial arrangements in a very harsh world. Perhaps those “instincts” are still with us. We need to outgrow them and the sad fact is that is what human history is; a very painful process.

  • madmax

    The increases of the top income earners come out of the pockets of the poor.

    You really need to check those premises.

  • Andrew Dalton

    “Instinct” is a black-box non-explanation, and it shouldn’t be invoked as the cause of anything.

    Altruism is probably common simply because it is an easy error to make. From human prehistory onward, it would have been obvious (on a perceptual level) that there can be advantages to working with others, that the many are stronger than the one, etc. From there, it is not much of a leap to the error that the group qua group, or others qua otherness, have special value. This error would not be propagated passively; its acceptance is an advantage to those who seek to rule.

  • Inspector

    “The increases of the top income earners come out of the pockets of the poor.”

    Yeah, this is an assumption you really need to start questioning.

    The only sense in which it could be said to be true is insomuch as our government, spurred on by the *exact* sentiment your statement represents, is making it so.

    There’s only one entity out there which is actually taking wealth by force from one group of people for the supposed benefit of others, and it’s not “the rich.” It’s the *government*, and it’s got the power to do so because people like you, jack, aren’t questioning assumptions like the one you’ve blurted out here.

    Either that or you’re a troll. Hard to say.

  • Steve D

    ““Instinct” is a black-box non-explanation, and it shouldn’t be invoked as the cause of anything.”

    I agree. Not only does this philosophically make sense but it has been demonstrated that adult humans (and indeed chimpanzees as well for that matter) have no instincts. All of our behavior is either learned or volitional (and generally both).

    I like this explanation for altruism although altruism is more than just group worship but also implies a denigration of the self. I would also add that altruism at least at first glance appears to be harder to do. At the extreme it would involve sacrificing one’s life. Since it seems to be harder it easy to make the assumption that it would require stronger character hence the equation of altruism as good.

    The reason I bring this up is that if we are going to fight against altruism it will help us a lot to understand why people make this mistake in the first place. If there are psychological reasons we should understand them.

  • madmax

    If there are psychological reasons we should understand them.

    One of the arguments made by the evolutionary psychology crowd is that there are certain emotional responses that are hard-wired into the human hind-brain. These responses, it is argued, either determine or heavily influence human behavior. The deterministic arguments are automatically invalid. But I have seen evolutionary arguments (with studies, there are always studies…) that suggest that humans have egalitarian “impulses” which are vestigial leftovers from hunter-gatherer times.

    I’m really mixed on evolutionary psychology, but I wonder if there is in fact some truth to the idea that the “reciprocal altruism” that evolutionary theorists always talk about has lead to the altruist ethical theories, originally religious and now secular, that have plagued mankind since time immemorial.

  • Steve D

    “determine or heavily influence human behavior”

    I guess I would argue that instincts are NOT emotions and there is an infinite difference between ‘determine’ and ‘heavily influence’.

    Well there is a lot of abuse of evolutionary theory out there. Do evolutionary psychologists ever wonder how many genes would have to be involved in this type of behavior! You would need many genes to recognize other humans, many more to assess the situation; many more create the emotion etc, many more to actually force the behavior. What a mess for an animal whose evolution strategy has generally been for increased flexibility in its behavior though intelligence.

    Studies on female chimpanzees that are raised in isolation and then artificially impregnated have shown that when they give birth they generally just leave their young and walk away. They have no idea what it is. So much for maternal instinct! Apes raised in isolation and then brought together often don’t even how to have sex, although some figure it out after a while by trial and error! If all of this is learned behavior in apes, then why would it be instinctive for humans? We can’t even recognize the opposite sex without being taught.

    How would you separate instinctive egalitarian impulses from learned behavior with a study? Then again most of these studies ignore the fact that people are volitional so we can ask how you would separate and instinctive egalitarian impulses from a simple mistake (as Andrew suggested). I am not sure.

    Anyway reciprocal altruism is not really altruism in the Objectivist meaning of the word. It’s more like simple cooperation separated in time.

    “with studies, there are always studies…”

    The studies are fine. Its how they are interpreted which is often the problem and to figure this out this usually requires looking at them very carefully. Unless this subject is of particular interest, you probably don’t have time.

  • Moataz

    so by rand’s concept of morality (egoism) and the concept of property rights as a businessman I can refuse to employ a disabled person no matter what his disability maybe. This is a big turn over the tables as most arguments against the ADA are of the sort: well it employs less of the disabled, makes them less productive economically etc…. of course the let will tell you that you have no empathy for the disabled which is ironic because it is not a matter of empathy

  • Moataz

    sorry that should have read “the left” not “the let”

  • Jim May

    it’s a shared obligation of the entire society and everyone has to pitch in

    Jack: you hit submit too soon, and chopped off the end of your sentence: the trailing words “or else.”

  • Jim May

    so by rand’s concept of morality (egoism) and the concept of property rights as a businessman I can refuse to employ a disabled person no matter what his disability maybe.

    Yes, just as the rest of us are free to boycott such a businessman, should we find this offensive — or hire the quality workers he lets get away, to his detriment.

  • Jim May

    Life and liberty are fairly easy to protect: people generally like to live and don’t cotton to people telling them what to do. But standing up for property rights is difficult under a morality of altruism and self-sacrifice.

    Then connect the two at every opportunity. The barrier you have to tear down to do this, is the spurious distinction between “economic” and “political” freedom, erected by the Marxists in the 19th century.

    Individual rights do not cease to exist when a dollar is involved or that an action otherwise subsumed thereunder is deemed “economic”. Liberty is indivisible; if you keep talking about it as one single entity, deliberately mixing examples from both sides of the false divide, and get people used to the idea once more.

  • Moataz

    so if the rest of us can do such a thing why this antagonism to property rights. do others not understand that they can boycott the businessman and that his reputation will just be worse off.

    maybe they think that their needs constitute a moral claim on my right as a businessman to employ

  • madmax

    Good response Steve.

    Unless this subject is of particular interest, you probably don’t have time.

    This has become my conclusion with regard to evolutionary theories based on the available studies and data accumulated by the behavioral sciences. That they are making erroneous conclusions because of deterministic premises and that if you wanted to really understand the subject, you would have to spend an inordinate amount of time; more time than most employed people have.

  • madmax

    But why should people boycott a businessman that refuses to hire the disabled? Or refuses to hire pregnant women? Or even refuses to hire women if he suspects their productivity will be limited should they chose to have children. And lets say that a company only hires people with an IQ over, say, 140 (some tech company) and this means that all he hires is whites and North Asians, should we boycott him?

    My point is that our argument should be that under an egoist morality a businessman can hire who the hell ever he wants. If you don’t like his hiring philosophy then start your own company and develop your own hiring philosophy. Under Laissez Faire it would be a cake-walk to start your own company. But the important point to always remember is that there are all sorts of legitimate reasons to discriminate. I can tell you from my experience that women on average are *far* less productive in the corporate world than men, especially once they have their children. If I were an employer, I would hire as few women as possible for exactly this reason. Would you boycott me?

  • Moataz

    How about this for another example of altruism:

    “Every other western democracy has fully accepted the fact that health care for all is a shared obligation of society. However some find that it’s ok for wide swaths of society to have substandard access to health care. In fact, its common to hear people say that lower income populations don’t deserve access to quality health care. Who was that socialist who talked about the “least among you”?

    and the republicans are still talking about cost and efficiency

  • Jim May

    But the important point to always remember is that there are all sorts of legitimate reasons to discriminate.

    Yes, there are. Moral disapproval of someone, along with the withdrawal of moral sanction, is one of them.

    Freedom is its own best defense. Withdrawing sanction from immoral individuals is a way that a free society can “self-police” itself.