Let nobody accuse the tea party enthusiasts of lacking intellectual sophistication, no matter what their favorite candidates might say about evolution, civil rights, masturbation or alcohol prohibition.

According to The New York Times, the movement’s reading list includes works of political economy by such right-wing thinkers as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Frederic Bastiat. (And never mind that some of them are reading Glenn Beck’s favorite crank, the late Cleon Skousen, who doesn’t quite belong in the same category.)

What makes this news so bemusing is not that the far right is rediscovering anarcho-capitalism or ultra-libertarianism — an ideology whose potential consequences were observed the other day in Tennessee, where firefighters watched a family’s house burn down because they hadn’t paid a fee. Mises, Hayek and their successors have long influenced the American right, from William F. Buckley Jr. to Alan Greenspan.

What’s funny is the sudden reverence among the tea party’s self-styled super-patriots for a bunch of foreign philosophers whose outlook is known as “Austrian economics,” except for Bastiat — whose Frenchness might be expected to arouse even greater suspicion among our nativists. Among the most bitter complaints against President Obama is his supposed penchant for European notions concerning health care reform, climate change and global security. His angriest critics at tea party demonstrations maliciously suggest that the president is himself a foreigner who doesn’t respect the American way.

So why do those same people now tell us that America should heed the Austrian school of economics, with its strictures against public schooling, public roads and government services of almost any kind?

Why should European ideologies of the far right suddenly become fashionable among citizens who so blithely accuse the White House of importing “socialist” policies from abroad?

The Austrian craze is particularly curious because it has displaced a school of economics that ought to be more appealing to the proud and patriotic, especially those who claim to be true to the views of the nation’s founders. That would be the school known as “the American system” — which offers the added attraction of a real record of promoting national prosperity.

What is (or was) the American system? As articulated by thinkers from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln, it included protective tariffs to foster industry, national support for scientific research, federal spending (and debt!) to finance public works, regulation of private infrastructure (such as railroads) and universal education. That way of doing things persisted well into the past century, influencing policy in the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Great Society. It preserved the nation’s independence after the Revolution and built the United States into the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world.

But Austrian economics — which the Austrians themselves have wisely rejected, by the way, in favor of a more democratic and egalitarian style — had precisely nothing to do with that historic process.

So why would the tea party movement, so prone to bouts of jingoism and xenophobia, embrace an untried foreign ideology? Why would they ignore the traditional, native-grown concepts that bear the stamp of Hamilton and Lincoln? It is hard not to suspect that the Washington-based exponents of Austrian economics, at corporate-funded outfits like Americans for Prosperity, are promoting their own familiar agenda.

If the “Austrian” ideology prevailed in tearing down government, extirpating regulation and destroying public institutions, what would be left standing? Not much except giant corporations, mammoth banks and hedge funds, whose proprietors would then be able to completely dominate an increasingly impoverished, uneducated and undefended people. Not every aspect of the old American system could or should have been preserved — but it is much preferable to the corporate oligarchy that can be glimpsed behind the tea party.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.


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