Children in the United States learn in school that in 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Native Americans boarded an English ship from the East India Company anchored in Boston and threw overboard its payload of tea as a protest against the arbitrary tax policy of the British crown. The Boston Tea Party belongs to the glorious narrative of independence. Replaying this against the White House is a key feature in the American political repertoire.
The colonists complained about taxes imposed on them by the Westminster parliament where they had no representation. Loyal subjects of His Majesty, they asked to be treated as such. However, a tax on sugar, then a stamp duty on printed documents, had been passed into law in 1764 and 1765 without them being consulted. A movement of civil disobedience organised itself. “Liberty masts” were erected in New York against the authoritarianism of London. The British government repressed the rebels and introduced new taxes on products useful to the colonists in 1768. The inhabitants of Boston boycotted English goods and imports halved over two years. As a result of the pressure from the merchants, London repealed these taxes, except a modest one on tea. Far from appeasing them, this reversal got people more worked up. A day of riots left five dead in Boston in 1770.
The tax on tea was also repealed, as a result of pressure from the East India Company which saw its market share disappear in favor of independent merchants and contraband. A further injustice to the colonists: the Company could sell its tea cheaper than anyone else. It was then that the Boston Tea Party took place. King George III reacted by closing Boston Harbor. About 50 delegates from nine of the 13 colonies met in congress in 1774 in New York to draft a book of complaints, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. The king declared the colonies in rebellion. Both sides started to arm themselves.
A major theme of the revolt was “no taxation without representation”: No new tax without prior debate with the representatives of the impacted populations. The American continent took for its own the Bill of Rights imposed in 1689 on the English sovereigns, demanding that all royal decisions, and more so those on tax, be ratified by parliament. It was in the end a radical positioning against the legitimacy of the government. It would result, following a war for independence, in the creation of the American Constitution, of which the first 10 amendments on fundamental liberties are the key reference of every anti-state opposition movement, reinterpreted as suits the needs of the time.
When Rick Santelli, journalist at the cable network CNBC, attacked Obama’s measures of financial assistance to Americans on the verge of losing their home because they are defaulting on their mortgage payments in February 2009, he revived this theme of the legitimacy of the decision. Why, he harangued straight from Chicago’s stock exchange, should citizens subsidise these “losers”? Of this question, he invited all the “capitalists” to debate at a “Tea Party” on the banks of Lake Michigan. It’s the start of the movement we know today.
The Roosevelt administration saw a similar movement, under the guise of the American Liberty League which, as early as 1934, denounced in one fell swoop the New Deal as inspired from Fascism and Communism and President Roosevelt as a budding dictator. Unlike the Tea Parties, the League never counted more than 130,000 members but like them, it was financed by the greatest fortunes of the land: DuPont, General Motors, General Foods, Chase National Bank, Standard Oil et al., who spent enormous sums to beat Roosevelt at the 1936 elections. The extreme rhetoric of the League and the formidable response of Franklin Roosevelt led to one of the worst electoral defeats of the Republican Party.
Under the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, the John Birch Society, named after a missionary and protestant soldier killed by Chinese communists in 1945, piggy-backed on the same points of constitutional liberties against state collectivism. Again financed by rich industrialists, it called for “less government, more individual responsibility and, with God’s help, a better world,” through the abolition of income tax, the repeal of the legislation on civil liberties and the keeping of minorities outside of the inner circles of power. It backed Barry Goldwater against Johnson in 1964, again to no avail.
Across all these conservative or extreme movements, the “libertarian” ideology unites them around a concept of individual freedom as the foundation of society. Ayn Rand (1927-1982), a novelist of Russian origin, in her million-selling books Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, brings them an absolute truth: that of the individual good against the collective evil. The Economist calls it Nietzsche repackaged for the Chambers of Commerce.