The robust federalism of Teatopia would, in the Tea Party imagination, at least, lead to bipartisan peace in the nation’s capital. Today’s Era of Bad Feelings, as the National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru describes the last decade and a half of American politics, would be replaced by an Era of Good Feelings as the federal government shrinks. Crony capitalists seeking handouts and favors would be forced to decamp from D.C. to state capitals around the country, and in particular to the states that decide to maintain and expand corporate subsidies, targeted tax breaks, and other giveaways.
What is left of the federal government would focus on either winding down the large federal programs that are the chief legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, or transforming them into barebones platforms that state governments could build on if they choose to do so. Social Security, for example, could be transformed into a “universal pension,” a la New Zealand, where everyone over the retirement age receives a flat benefit designed to eliminate poverty among seniors. As an added bonus, this much smaller Social Security program could be financed by a smaller payroll tax, or some other funding source, which would appeal to Tea Party conservatives like Ben Domenech of the Federalist, who hate the regressive payroll tax with a passion. State governments, meanwhile, could create their own add-on retirement benefits, like the publicly-sponsored retirement plan recently proposed by liberal state legislators in California.
The federal role in health insurance could go in a few different directions. Virtually all Tea Party conservatives favor repealing Obamacare, as we all know. In a post-Obamacare world, Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health insurance could gradually be turned into defined contribution programs, with the federal government kicking in a fixed amount of cash for each beneficiary. State and local governments could find creative ways to spend their Medicaid money wisely, and spend more if they see fit. But a small number of Tea Party fellow-travelers, led by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute, are making the case that the right ought to use the Obamacare exchanges to their advantage. By deregulating the exchanges, putting most Medicare beneficiaries on the exchanges, and raising the Medicare eligibility age, thus keeping older Americans on the exchanges for longer, Roy believes that the federal government could drastically reduce the growth of federal spending. In effect, the Tea Party could turn the program it hates the most into a Trojan Horse for a decentralized Teatopia.
Again, the fundamental idea is to allow states and local governments to let their freak flags fly—to let San Francisco and Cambridge be as left-wing as they want to be, and to let Midland and Colorado Springs be as right-wing as they want to be.
And for better or for worse, Teatopia would be far less bellicose than our own America. This week, Michael F. Cannon and Christopher A. Preble of the libertarian Cato Institute, a think tank that has a great deal of street cred in the Tea Party movement, offered an ingenious proposal in the New York Times. Instead of having the federal government provide health and disability benefits to veterans directly, they propose a system of prefunded veterans’ benefits. Military personnel would be given enough additional pay to purchase benefits at actuarially fair rates from private insurers. If war is looming, it is a safe bet that private insurers would jack up their rates to account for the fact that service members would face an elevated risk of death and dismemberment. Suddenly the federal government would have to pay for its war-waging ways even before the first shot is fired. Masking the long-term costs of military interventions would no longer be an option. Cleverly, Cannon and Preble find a fiscal solution for what at first glance seems like an intractable political problem, which is the tendency of lawmakers to neglect the lasting consequences of their actions. The military-industrial complex wouldn’t wither away overnight. But conservative voters would be far more skeptical about the use of military force if they could clearly see that it all but guaranteed higher taxes. Whether or not Cannon and Preble think of themselves as members of the Tea Party, their proposal illustrates how members of the movement might do things differently than other conservatives.
I have mixed feelings about Teatopia. There are aspects of it that I find very attractive. Yet there are other aspects that, as an old-school sentimental American nationalist, give me pause. What I can say is that the Tea Party movement does indeed have a distinctive vision, which will come into sharper focus in the years to come. The Tea Party is not some temporary aberration that will seamlessly blend into the conservative establishment in a few years. It is a real movement, and as America grows more diverse, and as American politics grows more contentious, it will grow.