I usually don’t like to push my name too far to the forefront in writing a story, but after a quarter-century of reporting on politics I think I’ve discerned a general principle that deserves to find a place in the textbooks.
I’m going to call it “Tucker’s Law.” If anybody has posited this before me I’ll be glad to cede naming rights. I don’t recall ever seeing it in so many words, however, and so since nobody seems to have marked out the territory, I’m going to rush in and stake my claim.
What has triggered this is not a single event but a whole series of observations that have been simmering over the years. There are many strands leading to the formulation of this concept. This is good because the mark of a sound scientific theory is that it is supposed to take seemingly disparate elements and pull them all together in one concise explanation.
One observation that always sticks in my mind is watching Sergei Eisenstein’s Ten Days that Shook the World, the 1928 movie made for Lenin that dramatized John Reed’s account of the Russian Revolution. There’s a wonderful moment where the Russians have overthrown the Czar and are setting up their first parliament. Representatives from all over the Czar’s vast empire arrive. There are Moslems from Central Asia, Laplanders from the Arctic Circle, and Cossacks from the vast internal plains that constituted Russia’s Wild West. I remember the camera lingering particularly over one Cossack with a massive beard and a headpiece that looked like a fur-lined sombrero. It was obvious that Eisenstein relished all this diversity.
Yet the point of the movie was that all this parliamentary democracy had to go and that Lenin and his party were right in overthrowing the government, claiming they were more representative of “The People.” Eisenstein had a hard time dealing with that in his movie. The Bolsheviks, after all, only held about ten percent of the seats in parliament. Yet they were an organized and fanatical minority, prepared to stop at nothing and ready to resort to violence when needed. And so their fanaticism was enough to strangle this infant democracy in its cradle.
This was not an easy message to convey to movie audiences. The best Eisenstein could come up with was a female guard who starts shedding sentimental tears as she dreams of what life could be under the Bolsheviks. She finally switches sides, welcoming the Bolshevik battalions, and the diverse, parliamentary democracy disappears forever.
But then what was Communism ever about except an effort by a minority to impose its will on the majority? The key was to centralize everything while extending the reach of the government into the most pedestrian aspects of everyday life. I remember Max Eastman’s account of his tour of the Soviet Union in the 1920s when he came to view the “future that works” but soon began to have his doubts. “It occurred to me one day,” he wrote, “that the two things the Russians loved most in the world were the market and the church. What was Lenin’s program except to take both of them away from the people?”
I thought of this again last week when Cuba announced it was going to unravel some of its Communist apparatus by firing 100,000 government employees. One tidbit that emerged is that in Cuba, shoemakers work for the government. Shoemakers!? When a political regime feels compelled to drag shoemakers under control of the central authority, what can be left of normal life?
As Frederick Hayek and the great Austrian economists taught us, socialism in all forms — be it the “International Socialism” of the Communists of the “National Socialism” of the Nazi Party — is an attempt to extend politics into the economic realm. In order to create perfect equality or end class divisions or establish the 1000-year Reich or whatever the reformers are promising, it is necessary to take control of economic activity and once that happens, human freedom ends. After all, what has any radical reform movement been except a demand that says, “Give all power to the government and then give me control of the government.” As Hayek wrote in one of the most significant sentences of the 20th century, “The person who advocates government planning of the economy always assumes that it is his plan that will be put into effect.”
What we have been witnessing in this country, then, is a slow but steady erosion of individual freedom through the gradual centralization of everything in Washington. This has not been achieved by one big blow, like the Russian Revolution, but is the cumulative effect of a thousand little movements, each intent on achieving its own piece of “reform” by demanding that decision-making be centralized in order to accomplish their agenda. Each faction soon discovers that by bringing their small and perhaps even unpopular effort to the Capital, they can attain the greatest amount of leverage with the smallest amount of resources.
Look at the environmental movement. Environmentalism has always been an issue whose support is a mile wide but an inch deep. Everyone is in favor of clean air, clean water and protecting mother earth, but if it comes to paying an extra 50 cents for gasoline or buying a toilet that has to flush twice to do its job, support quickly evaporates. Therefore government mandates are necessary. I recall reading a book written in the early stages of environmentalism where the author was counseling his fellow nature lovers on how to grow their effort. “When we think of implementing an environmental agenda, our thoughts turn to government regulation,” the writer said. “And when we think of government regulation, our thoughts naturally turn to Washington.” No point in trying to persuade your fellow citizens. Just get down to Washington and start making law.
Ralph Nader was the first person of his generation to perceive this. When Nader started out in the early 1960s, the common career path for an ambitious young lawyer who wanted to enter politics was to go back to his hometown, start a legal practice, make a name for himself and run for town council around age 28. If things went well you could move up to the state legislature at 32 and run for Congress by 35. Then you could go to Washington and start influencing national policy.
Nader perceived that all this was unnecessary. All you needed was a law degree and a small office near the Capitol. Start poring over the Congressional Record. Target some small bureaucratic agency, broadcast the news that their lack of oversight was creating a “crisis” and you’re on your way. The more you prove the agency isn’t doing its job, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it has to grow, the easier target it becomes. Bring a lawsuit and pretty soon you may be running the agency yourself through court orders.
This has been America’s history over the last half century. Failing to muster enough support at the grassroots level, thousands of political reform movements have found the best way to advance their agenda is to centralize decision-making in Washington and then concentrate their small but dedicated resources on dictating policy to the rest of the country.
So here, at last, is Tucker’s Law:
“The less support a group has for its agenda in the general population, the more intent it will be on centralizing authority so that its limited leverage will have the largest impact.”
Where does the Tea Party fit into this? Very simple. The Tea Party is made up of people who have no special interests but only a general interest in moving decision-making out of Washington so they can go back to living normal lives. They are the antithesis of all the hundreds and thousands of special interests that have migrated to Washington over the past half-century. Their only interest is not to be bothered by Washington and not to have federal bureaucrats interfering with their lives.
All the Tea Party people I have ever met have been ordinary people who are already successful at something else. These are not people you usually meet in politics. What you almost always encounter are political junkies, hooked on elections, wedded to policy-wonking or crusading for their particular vision of the world. Tea Party activists are just the opposite. They already have careers as insurance agents, software engineers, furniture salesmen or small business owners. They never had any concern for politics — or time for it — until they realized Washington was taking nearly half their income and using it to drive the country toward national bankruptcy. That’s when they decided to get involved.
All the statistics bear this out. Tea Party members are more successful than the general run of the population. They are more educated and have more income. They have very little political experience and no interest in expanding the government. They are “anti-politicians.” This reverses a long tradition in American history going back to the early days of the Republic when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “In America there are so many ways of making a living that a man doesn’t usually enter politics until he has failed at everything else.”
Can such a movement succeed? Sadly, the career path of such reform efforts is drearily familiar. Time and time again, reformers from both parties have won election by preaching the virtues of small government, only to resume their place at the table and begin carving out their same portion. This has happened over and over.
Yet this time it feels different. The Tea Party is steeped in the traditions of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution. One of the most powerful myths of that era was of George Washington as Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who abandoned his fields to lead a successful defense of his country, then renounced his authority and returned to his plow only sixteen days later.
Can Tea Partiers save the Republic from bankruptcy and then return to their fields to resume their regular occupations? If they do the job right, they will find their ordinary lives waiting for them when they get back.
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