Economics

The Tea Party's Pointy-Headed Populists

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When I last noticed a story about the Tea Party by New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, she was graciously allowing several of the movement's followers to insist they are not racists, even though they support federalism and oppose the minimum wage. On Friday she topped her superficially even-handed but implicitly hostile treatment of the Tea Partiers' alleged bigotry with a story about their reading tastes, headlined "Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts," that amounts to an anti-intellectual attack on a group that is usually portrayed as a bunch of dumb yokels. "When it comes to ideology," Zernike reports, the Tea Party "has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas," such as those of F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat. A caption under a photo accompanying the article cites the same two writers, saying, "Tea Party supporters…have made best sellers out of books by long-dead authors."

So are these weird right-wingers ignoramuses or eggheads? I'm not sure, but Zernike and her editors seem to fall into the former category. Bastiat—the French political theorist who elucidated the "broken window" fallacy, wrote the anti-protectionist satire "The Candlemakers' Petition," and made the case for a strictly limited government in The Law—did die way back in 1850, so he obviously has nothing to offer us. But Hayek, the Nobel-winning economist and political philosopher whose books include The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, has been dead less than two decades, so it's possible that some part of his work may still be worth reading. Indeed, according to Zernike, Hayek invented "the rule of law," which was his "term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of 'personal ends and desires.'"

Zernike offers this gloss in the process of explaining why Tea Partiers objected to "the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill." Actually, as Zernike's colleague David Sanger could have explained to her, the complaint was based on the fact that Mr. Obama "had no legal basis for the demand, but concluded he did not need one." People outside of the Tea Party, including leftish critics of George W. Bush (and of Obama, for that matter), have been known to express similar concerns about presidential lawlessness. Did they also get their devotion to this obscure "rule of law" idea from reading dusty books by that long-dead Hayek guy?