Friday, June 24, 2005

The Real Reason for a Tea Party

Periodically, citizens invoke the Boston Tea Party in their outrage against taxes. Half the time they miss the point about taxation without representation. Uh, guys, we have representation and a majority of them are in your party.

And almost no one remembers the real situation that led to the Boston Tea Party. It wasn't so much about taxes, representation or not. It was about the crown's government propping up favored big businesses against local merchants.

The latest reason to call upon the Tea Party metaphor is a property rights case recently decided by the Supreme Court. The ruling may actually bring together some folks who haven't necessarily been on the same side — property-rights activists, along with advocates for elderly and low-income urban residents.

The Court held local governments had the right to use eminent domain — forcing landowners to give up their land for public use in exchange for fair compensation — for private economic development. The Fifth Amendment prohibits taking of private property except for "public use." In the past, "public use" was construed to mean roads and bridges or clearing blighted areas. But the project under review in New London, Connecticut, was revitalization of a different sort, turning waterfront into office buildings, upscale housing and a marina near a research center being built by Pfizer. The chief beneficiaries, it would seem, were private parties.

New London was hurt by the loss of jobs when the Naval Undersea Warfare Center closed, and city officials were understandably interested in preventing a slide into further economic distress. That's what the project seemed to promise.

Here's where the parallels with Boston Harbor come in.

The protest wasn't simply about King George extracting money from the colonists with a tax imposed on tea. The British government was actually trying to prop up private enterprise. Britain's East India Company was stuck with a large tea inventory it couldn't sell in Britain, so the government exempted it from the tax imposed on colonial merchants. The idea was that, by selling its untaxed tea and bypassing the middlemen, the Company could unload its surplus on the colonials, who would — shades of Wal-Mart — flock to the lower prices.

Naturally, the merchants weren't keen on being put under by the British monopoly, and the locals didn't appreciate the high-handed move, either. They boycotted the British tea. The Tea Party was an escalation of this struggle, and the rest is history.

So the next time you hear someone advocate a return to Tea Party rebellion, be sure to ask what they're protesting — taxes that make it tough for the little guy, or the exercise of tax policy and government power on behalf of favored businesses.

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