One Friday night at my home a dear friend who runs a large charitable foundation raised his glass to toast the demise of the Tea Party which he branded a group of racists, xenophobes, and bigots. Taken aback I responded that to my knowledge the Tea Party is focused simply on more limited government and the reduction of government spending. I didn't know racism was part of the platform, I said. But he was adamant that the Tea Party's small government rhetoric was an attack on low-income minorities.
Lost in the debate about the morality of the Tea Party is any discussion about its underpinnings in human nature. The principle purpose of government is to provide the optimal conditions through which human beings can acquire their most important necessities, the highest of which is dignity.
Governments provide many essentials for their citizens, from law and order to social services, from good roads to education. If it's a socialist government it may even provide cradle-to-grave benefits or if it's a more right-leaning government it may emphasize a robust national defense. But the one human essential that government cannot provide is human dignity.
The very premise of dignity is something acquired through personal effort. Dignity is the human aura that comes through self-reliance. Its underlying premise is independence. A dependent life is a fundamentally undignified life. Self-respect is earned through the sweat of one's brow. An heir to a great fortune may travel the high seas in a hundred foot yacht and soar through the air in a Gulfstream V. But he will remain fundamentally bereft of dignity so long as he is living on someone else's dime.
Yes, people want to pay their bills. More than that, they want nice houses and material comforts. But more than anything else they seek an existence infused with a sense of relevance and purpose. We seek redemption but wish for it to come about through our own devices.
In many cultures the loss of dignity, or face, becomes a reason to terminate life itself. The Talmud states that shaming someone in public is worse than murder because the public humiliation makes them wish they were dead, in effect, making the victim into his own murderer.
America's rapid rise to the forefront of global economic power was not an accident but the direct result of the cultivation of a fierce individualism and a rugged self-reliance on the part of its citizenry. Where European populations were content to live under the dominion of anointed rulers, Americans threw off the yoke of a foreign sovereign and tamed a vast wilderness. For Americans divine appointment translated as manifest destiny, the ability for a nation of immigrants, who arrived at these shores with nothing, to spread their accomplishments from sea to shining sea. In so doing Americans made claim to a level of independence and dignity that had few historical precedents.
The welfare state claims a higher morality over capitalism which it sees as selfish and materialistic. There is some truth to this claim, especially when capitalism is allowed to become soulless and deadening. But for all its flaws, capitalism fosters an independence that promotes dignity while socialism creates a reliance that subverts self-esteem. Yes, government must provide a safety net for a rainy day. But only self-reliance creates a sunny life.
I recently heard a philanthropist tell a story whereby he visited a soup kitchen that had asked for his support. He was skeptical that the people eating there were actually in need. Perhaps they simply came because the food was free. But the Rabbi who ran the facility asked him, "Are you capable of asking someone for food?" The philanthropist answered that he was not. "Well then," the Rabbi responded, "if someone is forced to ask me to eat I have to believe that they are truly hungry."
The story illustrates both the necessity of providing essential social services for those in need while always being mindful never to allow that need to transmute into a permanent dependency. True, socialist governments provide without having to ask. But the effect is the same, fostering a corrosive dependence on a hand that feeds. The effort to recapture the dignity that springs from self-reliance is what the tea party, at its core, should be all about.
Countries like Britain, Greece, and Spain are undertaking drastic austerity measures to rescue themselves from economic collapse. In truth, however, their reckless entitlements and wholesale capitulation to organized labor has less to do with their inability to afford vast social services than finally reversing the corruption they were fostering in their populace. My progressive friends speak to me about how a compassionate society takes care of its citizens. That is true. But it must also take care to ensure that it never robs its citizens of the nobility of spirit which is the birthright of every human being.
This is a point that is missing in the current debate about the teacher's unions, which are fighting to maintain life tenure after only three years of employment and block all attempts at firing ineffective teachers. Forget for a minute how harmful this. Are they really doing a favor for unproductive teachers who can't hold their own in the classroom? Is having your job preserved by a union when you consistently underperform a life that can induce pride? Can you feel good about yourself when you're in a profession where only collective pressure keeps you receiving a paycheck?
Maimonides famously lists levels of charity, with giving someone a vocation being the highest. The Tea Party is far from perfect. But in emphasizing self-reliance, it taps into a hidden human desire to live a life crowned with self-esteem.