Jill Lepore’s recent article about Tea Party activists includes a passage that summarizes neatly the themes of my last two posts:
Today’s Tea Partiers like to describe their movement as a catchall—Hess identifies himself as a libertarian, Varley describes herself as a social and fiscal conservative—but it doesn’t catch everything. “All the government does is take my money and give it to other people,” Hess told me. Hess’s own salary is paid by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security; he works for M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory, studying chemical and biological warfare. “I’m not an anarchist,” he said. “It’s not that I think all government is bad.” Opposition to military power doesn’t have a place in Hess’s Tea Party.
What strikes me here isn’t his making an exception for military power, but the fact that he thinks the government is taking his money, even though the money comes from the government in the first place. This is part of what makes the concept of property rights so fuzzy in the modern context. When your income derives from skilled labor, your property is generally derived not from natural resources you control but from the market value of your job. What that is is hard enough to determine even in the private sector; but what is the market value of a military engineer? We could only find out if we allowed a market for people to build biological weapons for the highest bidder, which is a pretty alarming thought. But somewhere, Hess got an idea of what he should be paid, and thinks the government is misusing what is rightfully his.
Although in prior posts I emphasized the more exalted government jobs, the civil service is also full of ordinary jamokes like Hess, for whom working for the government isn’t much different from working for a large corporation. In fact, if he were a corporate employee grumbling about how management was misspending money that could have gone into his raise, he would hardly be seen as a libertarian champion. Yet the complaint is essentially the same, which is perhaps the real source of the Tea Party’s anger: in a world of big government, big business, and big everything, most individuals depend financially upon institutions that are too big to even notice them.
But I am still wondering if there’s a better way for people like Hess to think about their jobs, and the property that they derive from those jobs. If we think of individuals as bearing natural rights and governments as a natural threat to those rights, his status as both at once seems to be irreconcilable. But he’s right about one thing: if you’re not an anarchist, somebody has to do it.