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Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Tea Party’s bitter brew

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Lower taxes. Limited government. Lean business regulations. These themes form the Tea Party’s mantra.

What might such government look like today? Fortune Magazine reader Dean Cincinnati describes a county that meets the Tea Party’s expectations: “If you like small government, a relatively large military, low taxes, and limited regulation, why not move to a country that has these things? Take Pakistan, for example.”

When portraying Thomas Jefferson in authentic colonial garb at Tea Party gatherings, I hear anti-government enthusiasts co-opt our third president.

Tea Partiers deny the difficulty of forcing our complex economy into 18th century Jeffersonian agrarian simplicity.

He rejected a national bank, suspicious of its supersized speculation. Though grudgingly accepting, after the War of 1812, some manufacturing in the U.S. economy, Jefferson still believed farming fueled prosperity’s engine.

His restricted view of commerce slowed economic advance. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gordon Wood, in “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different,” describes Jefferson’s naive slant on commerce, which needed few government regulations.

“Jefferson’s idea of commerce essentially involved the sale abroad of agricultural staples — wheat, tobacco and cotton. His commerce was not the incessant trucking and trading, the endless buying and selling with each other that came to characterize the emerging Yankee world. That kind of dynamic domestic commerce and all the capitalistic accoutrements that went along with it — banks, stock markets, liquid capital, paper money –Jefferson feared and despised.”

“Would you want to live in such a bartering society?” I ask Tea Partiers.

It’s easy to understand why 18th century federal government was limited. Not much on the plantations required regulation because farmers lived independently.

Jefferson favored reducing government’s regulatory power because he didn’t want the feds curtailing slavery. Depending on economic conditions, between160 and 220 slaves labored at Monticello.

When Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Jefferson suspected this was the first step toward abolition of slavery. This compromise allowed Maine’s entry into the Union as a free state, with Missouri admitted as a slave-holding state.

Jefferson argued that Congress had no right “to regulate the conditions of the different descriptions of men composing a state.” Only states held an ironclad “exclusive right” to regulate slavery, not the federal government.

What the Tea Party doesn’t talk about is how much limited government rhetoric is rooted in a pro-slavery culture when commerce consisted of trading corn for cotton.

Who wants to get into an economic time machine and return to this plantation society? Slavery and agricultural bartering based on limited government are gone with the wind.

Still, the Tea Party’s spirit of cutting government thrives in new forms today.

Republicans want to remove federal controls on pricing of drugs and medical services. They desire free-market dominance in health care.

This is achieved when cost-containment measures passed in last year’s health reform legislation are repealed.

Medicaid is the primary medical lifeline for those struggling to pay bills. House Republicans want to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27) by funding Medicaid with block grants that our 50 states administer in 50 different ways. From the get-go, this economic free-for-all is under-funded. It forces recipients into complex medical markets that boggle even sophisticated investors.

Allan Sloan, in “The Hocus-Pocus Behind Paul Ryan’s Medicare ‘Reform,'” (Fortune Magazine, May 2, p. 41) describes the chaos and unfairness this limited government scheme will unleash.

“It’s wonderful to talk about ’empowering’ people — but you also have to protect them, especially when their abilities, health and finances are less than optimal. It’s hard enough for young, healthy people to pick among health insurance policies. The idea of old, sick, and financially stressed people being able to competently sort through pages of Medicare options is ridiculous.” And callous.

When limited government doesn’t provide for the poor nor regulate Wall Street, big business rushes in to fill the voids left by government’s retreat. Without government oversight, business graft spreads like a lethal cancer.

In 1930 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking at the annual Jefferson Day dinner the National Democratic Club sponsored, excoriated money grubbers on Wall Street who avoided helping the poor as the Great Depression set in.

“If Thomas Jefferson were alive,” thundered FDR, “he would be the first to question this concentration of economic power.”

The Tea Party is naive to imagine our nation can return to a simpler era of self-sufficient plantations with lax government regulation. It’s immoral to revert to practices in which a survival of the fittest mentality prevails, amid flag waving and Constitution chanting against big government.

The poor deserve government big enough to protect them and small enough not to overwhelm them with regulatory hassles.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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