Curiouser and Curiouser: Down the rabbit hole with the Tea Party, Libertarians and free marketeers 

"I think you might do something better with the time ... than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers."

Frustrated words from Alice, in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, spoken to the Mad Hatter at his Mad Tea Party. But Alice would have had an equally tough time cracking the riddle of our present-day Tea Party, with its grab-bag of fevered conspiracy theories, nebulous socio-political anger and wooly lexicon of frothy slogans. "Obama lied, grandma died." "I'll take my freedom, guns and my money—you keep the change." "Central Planning: Destroying human prosperity since 4000 B.C."

The movement, which has hammered populist rage in the depths of the Great Recession into a powerful—if amorphous—political weapon, defies easy labels.

For many onlookers—chiefly on the left—the "Tea Party Patriot" scene is a hysterical society littered with racial, sexual and class paranoia, and spiked with a noxious dose of conspiracism and Founder-philia. Hard-core liberal wonks rub their hands in glee, expecting the tricorn set to load Republican tickets with wacky candidates, thus tossing elections to their Democratic picks.

More sympathetic readings of the tea leaves tout a desire for some measure of fiscal restraint from Congress and a return to "traditional American values." The prevailing view from the right, however, plays on the "sleeping giant" imagery of a vengeful populace come to settle scores against a Hobbesian leviathan that has played fast and loose with God-given liberties from the first days of the Republic.

Tea Partiers want a radical reduction of the federal government, but many fear cuts to Medicare and favor continued war spending. Signs at Tea Party rallies bearing small government quotes from former presidents Thomas Jefferson (a non-interventionist) and Andrew Jackson (a former general) are as ubiquitous as pocket copies of the Constitution.

But for all their ideological schizophrenia, there's a consistent, and often unexamined, theme running through the Tea Party rallies. It's summed up in three words: "End the Fed."

At first blush, it's not a very sexy slogan. In fact, it's the title of a book by Texas Congressman and diehard Libertarian Ron Paul and hard evidence that his fingerprints are all over the Tea Party. (The first modern "Tea Party" was staged on Nov. 5, 2007, by Ron Paul supporters, on which day they raised $4.2 million in a record-breaking "money bomb.")

In End the Fed, published in 2009, Paul makes the case for auditing the Federal Reserve—the nation's central bank—then abolishing it. According to "Dr. No," so named for his opposition to everything from Medicare to relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, trashing the Federal Reserve achieves the same end Andrew Jackson sought in his epic 1830s struggle with the "monster bank": freeing the country from a cartel of bureaucrats who have manipulated the money supply for their own gain. The current system of paper currency—backed by nothing more than the "full faith and credit" of the government—would be likewise done away with in favor of a "sound money" system backed by precious metals.

Transitioning the national economy from a commodity-based currency to one pegged on the value of gold and silver would be a radical change, so it was either a testament to Paul's anti-Fed cachet, or further proof of Idaho's proud place on the bleeding edge of right-wing politics, that Idaho Reps. Phil Hart and Lenore Hardy Barrett received a loud support when they teamed up in January to unveil their sound money legislation to a group of Tea Partiers assembled outside the state capitol.

Hart, an Athol Republican and well known tax protestor—who is currently fighting the federal government over $53,000 in back taxes and fees he claims he doesn't have to pay—proposed the Idaho Silver Gem Act, which would have made taxes payable in special silver bars and provided tax breaks to Idaho mining companies. Barrett's bill called for silver as an alternative currency in Idaho, along with the establishment of an electronic silver-backed currency exchange.

Neither bill made its way to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk, but Hart said the time is coming when sound money will be necessary.

"As a society, we have a debt capacity, and we can only handle so much in the way of interest payments," Hart said. "When we exceed that debt capacity, then the money supply stops unless we print the money out of thin air. That's where we're at today. We don't have much capacity to take on more debt, and it's caused our economic expansion to stop."

In other words, the current system is unsustainable because it's based on debt. Money doesn't come into existence until somebody borrows it or the Federal Reserve prints it, and the only reason it has value at all is that everyone agrees that it does.

Sound monetists like Hart say that moving to a currency based on something with inherent value—like precious metals—would provide the economy with more stability. Both silver and gold have industrial applications that make them valuable, and Idaho has one of the country's largest supplies of silver—chiefly in the Silver Valley, which is in Hart's neighborhood in North Idaho.

"You can't manipulate gold, you can manipulate paper currency," Hart said. "Some people—if they have the ability to manipulate the money supply—they can't keep their hands off it."

When Hart says "some people," he means the Fed and its political cronies, and Paul and other gold and silver bugs would agree. Nonetheless, the gold- and silver-standards went the way of the dodo early in the last century, and supporters have had a hard time convincing state governments to overhaul their economies for a system that fell out of favor about the same time as pince nez glasses and spats.

"Some people may say we're being old fashioned, or that today we're advanced enough that we don't need to base the currency on anything but the 'full faith and credit' of the federal government, but the greatest periods of growth and economic expansion in our history has been with a commodity currency," Hart said. "It's been more of an incremental approach away from gold or silver, and [measures like the Idaho Silver Gem Act] are an incremental way to bring us back. That's a doable way to approach this thing."

It wasn't doable enough for fellow lawmakers in the Senate, however. Hart said legislators balked at his bill because they worried that mining tax breaks would have to be extended to other industries. They also didn't want to burden the state treasurer with resetting the entire state economy. Barrett's bill didn't make it out of committee, and the Challis Republican, who lists "mining/investments" as her profession on the Legislature's website, didn't return numerous calls requesting comment.

Though defeated, the sound money bills made the Gem State a cause celebre in Tea Party and Libertarian circles, and vaulted Hart and Barrett to the forefront of the state's hard-right conservative vanguard—and that doesn't necessarily mean "among Republicans."

For true believers, blame for our current economic ruin lies with both parties, and it revolves around an unstable monetary policy.

According to Tyler Williams, of the group Twin Falls Republican Party Restoration: "I think what has happened, as we see it in Twin Falls, is that the establishment members of the Republican party have gotten used to taking orders from the Republican National Committee—from the top down ... Restore Twin Falls GOP is a group of classical conservatives who see the local Republican Party disregarding the Idaho Republican platform and have continuously impeded conservative initiatives for years."

Williams refers to Hart as the "adopted mascot" of the Twin Falls group, and admiration for Idaho's recent silver bills came from Idaho Libertarian and Tea Party groups, as well as Paulist websites including the Daily Paul blog and campaignforliberty.com.

Like Paul, whom he served as a presidential delegate to the 2008 National Republican Convention, Hart favors the audit then abolition of the Federal Reserve. But his view on whether it can be accomplished is tempered by political realism.

"If we had the audit we'd be so surprised at what we found that there would be momentum created to abolish it," he said. "But to abolish it right now is probably not politically feasible."

Still, Hart thinks it's just a matter of time before everyone's on board with the idea.

"I think there's a few mainline Republicans who are starting to recognize that we need to do something," Hart said. "I think there's a lot more awareness of it now than there was even two or three years ago."

Indeed, Paul managed to see his long-held desire for an audit of the Fed taken seriously by Congress earlier this year, but when key Democrats rejected the idea at the last minute, the great reckoning was called off.

While Tea Partiers and Paulists lost that battle (for now), the tea kettle certainly isn't losing steam. Witness the recent Idaho Republican Primaries, when supposed First Congressional District shoe-in Vaughn Ward—with an in-person, public endorsement from former Alaska governor, Idaho native and Tea Party maven Sarah Palin—was up-ended by local Tea Party darling Raul Labrador.

Labrador will face off with incumbent Rep. Walt Minnick in November, and if you want your brain to explode, remember this: Minnick, a Democrat, was the only member of his party in the country to receive an endorsement from the Tea Party Express.

Alice recommends against wasting our time with riddles that can't be answered, but there's got to be something down the rabbit hole that unifies a movement as disparate and tangential as the Tea Party. Again, we return to "End the Fed" and sound money as keystone issues.

"A national gold/silver standard currency would immediately put a halt to the deficit spending, and so the Democrats don't want to get rid of the fiat currency [the technical term for paper money] because it would end many unconstitutional welfare programs; and the Republicans don't want it because it would end many of the unconstitutional militarization efforts," stated Williams in an e-mail.

"The end of the day implications though, is that the establishment politicians who do not support sound money will eventually be booted out of office, because as Andrew Jackson said: 'If the people understood the rank injustice of our money and banking system, there would be a revolution before morning' [his italics]."

Williams noted that in Idaho, Republicans are leading the way on this issue. Indeed, the party wrote sound-money principles into its official platform at the 2008 state party convention in Sandpoint.

According to Jonathan Parker, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, the issue is a "contentious" one, and will likely come up at the next party convention on Saturday, June 26, and Sunday, June 27, in Idaho Falls.

"I only say it's contentious because you have many people in our party who differ on the issue," he said. "The sound-currency support is mostly found in those members of our party that share many libertarian ideals."

And by "libertarian ideals," Parker alludes to members of the Idaho GOP who ascribe to many of the tenets of the Tea Party.

"The Tea Partiers stand for lower taxes and limited government; I think you've seen a resurgence of states' rights under the Tea Party movement. They're bringing it to the fore," he said. "We absolutely welcome the Tea Party movement."

Political watchers, both in Idaho and elsewhere, are accustomed to Republican rhetoric on small government, traditional values and responsibility—both personal and fiscal—but the upswing in bimetallist language is a recent development inspired in large part by Paul himself.

"Of course it was illegal to own gold in this country from 1933 to 1977, until the Helms-Paul (Ron Paul) act gave that freedom back to the people," Williams wrote. "So to say that Ron Paul has had an influence on this movement is an understatement: He helped start it! And, of course, Ron Paul is an advocate of free markets [and] promotes the Austrian School of Economics, which has some great literature on sound money."

Williams' nod to Paul's advocacy of "Austrian" economics is key to deciphering much of the present-day Tea'd off mania for hard money. And to understand what Austrianism has to do with current right-wing populism, you have to go back to early April 1947, when a worried group of 36 intellectuals gathered at the snowy Mont Pelerin Resort near Montreux, Switzerland.

Eight among them were Nobel Prize winners; others were historians, philosophers and businessmen. They'd been invited to the conference by Austrian-born economist Friedrich von Hayek, a student of Ludwig von Mises—the grandfather of radical free market economics.

Though their backgrounds differed, the members of what would come to be called the Mont Pelerin Society shared one overriding concern: Big government policies in the United States and abroad were collectivizing society, politics and economics. Nothing less than Western civilization was at stake.

While a high-powered Swiss alpine meeting of brainiacs and businessmen might sound like the beginnings of a Dan Brown novel, the Mont Pelerin Society is still in existence and serves as an international partner of other organizations that follow the laissez-faire principles of the Austrian School.

Chief among them in the United States is the Ludwig von Mises Institute, founded in 1982 by Mises disciple Llewelyn Rockwell and the late-professor's widow. Among the distinguished faculty of the LvMI, based in Auburn, Ala., is one Rep. Ron Paul.

The LvMI's viewpoint was summed up by Mises himself: "Government is essentially the negation of liberty." A perusal through the LvMI website's voluminous catalog reveals a consistent worldview that ownership of private property is the central pillar of personal liberty and no person or government is right to take it or threaten it in any way.

That message sounds increasingly attractive to people fed up with government intrusion and an economy bloated with bailouts and entitlements. But some contend there's an ugly side to all this hard currency, anti-government, states' rights rhetoric.

For starters, many libertarian-minded supporters of Austrian economics—including Hart, in his January address to Tea Partiers—invoke biblical proofs to advance the cause of laissez-faire policies and sound money. Specifically, Hart cites, scriptural passages like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Proverbs and Micah, which extol "just weights and measures."

But Peter Crabb, an economics and finance professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, said the Bible doesn't necessarily support one type of economics over another.

"Here we talk about that a lot, as a Christian school," he said, especially from the angle of income inequality, which Austrian economics would allow in unlimited amounts.

"Does Jesus support income inequality? Some references say, yes, there are rich and poor. Others say, no. It's not a question that He answered for us definitively," Crabb said. "I do think there is scriptural basis for a more laissez faire economy, but I don't think scripture wants us to answer that question either."

Founding Austrian economists are also silent on the subject of the ecclesiastics of sound money, but the school of thought rejects nearly every social program as "socialistic" and calls the New Deal alternately a fascist or communist regime. But among LvMI's most controversial claims is the belief that the Civil War wasn't to end slavery, and Abraham Lincoln was an imperialist demagogue who prosecuted the war simply to expand federal authority over the Southern states. As Paul said during a 2008 appearance on Meet the Press, Lincoln provoked the war to "subvert the original purpose of the Republic."

From that point of view, the Civil War was a brutal violation of states' rights and the beginning of the descent into statist ruin. Remember, Austrian proponents chide, that the first real fiat money, called "greenbacks," was backed by nothing but the "full faith and credit" of the government and printed in 1862 to fuel the Northern war effort.

Naturally, that telling of history doesn't sit well with a lot of people, not least of which is the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private group run by civil rights activist Morris Dees. The SPLC views the Ludwig von Mises Institute's intellectual pedigree—shared by Paul, other Libertarians and proponents of Austrianism—with no small amount of skepticism. The organization even goes so far as to list several prominent faculty members of the institute as "neo-confederates." That includes author Thomas diLorenzo, whose books, highly critical of Lincoln, have been quoted approvingly by Paul.

The LvMI is adamant that it doesn't support racism or the institution of slavery. Still, it isn't coy about its belief that the Confederacy had every right to secede in protection of its states' rights, and doesn't hide its connections with pro-Confederacy groups like the Southern nationalist organization League of the South, which the institute lists on its website as a member of the "Roll of Honor."

The League of the South, labeled as a "hate group" by the SPLC in 2000, is also a strong advocate for sound money and Austrian economics. SPLC spokesman Mark Potok said sound-money principles aren't necessarily "neo-confederate" ideas, but those sound monetism and radical ideals—embroiled as they are with issues of states' rights and biblical sanction—come from a page taken "directly from the radical right."

"Throughout the patriot movement, throughout the militia movement, people believe that the only lawful money is gold and silver," he told BW. "This whole thing is based on the utterly fantastic notion that there is no real money by virtue of the Constitution and God himself other than gold or silver.

"Most so-called patriots will talk for instance about the Federal Reserve and the fact that it's benefiting a tiny elite," Potok added. "What most of them won't go on to tell you is that 'the elite' is a cabal of rich Jews ... It's essentially an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory."

The anti-Semitic nature of "End the Fed-ism" isn't quite that cut and dried, though. While most white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups agree with the suggestion that the Federal Reserve system was founded by--and maintained for--the benefit of rich Jewish bankers, by and large they reject gold or silver bugs as pawns in a Jewish plot to capture and destroy the capitalist economy.

An article titled "Nationalist Economics," posted on the websites Midwest Free Press and White News Now, criticizes the sound money idea as unsustainable in the long-term, but much of the language has a familiar ring, complete with the "banking elite," Congressional corruption and the fear of creeping socialism.

"Many Americans, including Libertarians and some paleoconservatives, advocate that we return to a gold-backed currency ..." wrote the unnamed author. "The only time I would advocate a gold standard is during a transition period in a country like the current USA, where we are dominated by a banking elite and we need to take the power to spend away from our corrupt Congress. This would shift more control of the nation's money to the people, and hopefully help us break our current descent into communism."

For Tea Partiers, constitutionalists and proponents of Austrian economics—unlike radical white nationalist groups—the rhetoric comes down to the Tenth Amendment's directive that "No state shall ... coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts."

Tea Party and libertarian organizations like the LvMI understandably reject claims that sound monetism is rooted in anti-Semitism—Austrian school founders Mises and Hayek, after all, were Jewish—and in Boise, local Tea Partiers eschew racial or ethnic arguments in favor of the Founding Fathers.

"The logic is the very same as originally established in the days of our Founders. Today, with the advent of the Federal Reserve, our practice of letting government and politicians manipulate the value of money by inflating it and deflating, has created the financial ruin we face," according to a statement from Tea Party Boise in response to questions e-mailed by BW. Requests for attribution, or a phone or in-person interview, went unanswered.

"We want to return to those roots," the statement continued. "Therefore sound money policy is critical to doing just that. The Founders were against the notion of a 'central government banking system,' which is exactly what we have in the Federal Reserve. They knew how corrupting that would be in terms of sound fiscal policy. They were right and history proves it."

To borrow again from Lewis Carroll:

"Have you guessed the riddle yet?" the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

"No, I give it up," Alice replied: "what's the answer?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.

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