On Friday, September 11, 2009 the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and the Competitive Enterprise Institute held a briefing at the National Press Club for Tea Party Organizers. Perhaps 300 people listened to four talks on the historical, economic, and moral bases of the tea party protests.
My own talk–15 minutes plus Q&A–focused on the need for a moral principle to integrate tea party activities: the principle of Individual Rights. This is America’s Founding Principle–the idea that guided the American Founders, more than any other, to establish this nation, and to create its limited government. About two dozen crowded around me afterwards, wanting more information and asking questions about the meaning of rights.
This confirms one of my key selling points: when speaking about rights, don’t water down the principle. Speak in clear, unambiguous terms about each person’s right to his own life and liberty, and his right to pursue his own happiness. People today are surrounded with mealy-mouthed slogans, with arguments based on costs, and with claims that success can come only through compromise. People are hungry for a clear statement of a moral principle–because they need guidance on how to understand the many issues with which they are confronted every day.
Don’t argue about incremental steps toward statism–about a 7.5% versus 8% sales tax, about health care co-ops versus a government option, about a carbon tax imposed by legislation versus EPA diktat–for each of these is the same thing in principle. Don’t allow a tea party to be reduced to a series of disconnected issues, approached willy-nilly and without a guiding thought. A tea party without individual rights is not for anything, and cannot have any lasting influence.
The next day, September 12, I had the distinct pleasure of standing near the speakers’ platform at the foot of the capitol steps. I saw a sea of individuals that reached from behind my left shoulder, across my entire field of view, to over my right shoulder–and stretched from the steps of the capitol to beyond the Washington monument. I cannot offer an accurate count of people–where are the overhead images?–but it must have been close to a half a million or more. The signs I saw were almost all hand-written; very few were manufactured, and many decried socialism. I met people who had driven from Detroit, and had come from Nebraska, California, New Mexico and Georgia.
The speakers did not, by and large, offer much intellectual content. This was a rally, and given that most speakers were given only 3 minutes, the overall effect was to boost people’s awareness that they are not alone in their concern for the growth of government power and the increasing attacks on our freedom. There was a rap music group that performed conservative themes, a couple of politicians (Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina for instance), and a young black woman who argued passionately against an obsessive focus on race. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights was cut-off at two minutes, but managed to make the point that your life is yours, that to be the best person you can be is the truly American way to live, and that you are not your brothers’ keeper.
All in all, this was the most amazing public gathering I have ever seen. I do not agree with everything said. I do not agree that religion, which values humility and sacrifice before a divine being, can provide the basis for individual rights. I do not agree that there is any difference between “Give unto the poor” and “To each according to his need.” History shows that the most religious periods–Rome under Christian emperors, the dark ages, Calvin’s Geneva, the Religious Wars of the Reformation, Holy Mother Russia–were defined by stagnation, oppression and warfare. This history was broken only when the American Founders elevated the individual’s self-interested right to his own life into a founding principle, and established a government limited to that purpose.
But the protesters of 9-12-2009 stood by their own energy against the power of the state, and expressed a healthy sense of self-esteem. They demanded that American politicians cease attacking the freedoms of American citizens, and cease adding to the tide of government power that threatens us all with moral, political, and financial catastrophe.