Is the Occupy Wall Street movement similar to the Tea Party? Some think so, including President Obama, and they have a point. Both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement embody a vehement distrust of the existing political and economic power structure. Both movements give voice to citizens who feel politically disempowered and economically downtrodden. Both have taken to the streets to give voice to their grievances. Both include disparate influences and lack a coherent organizational infrastructure, making the articulation of specific demands difficult.
But make no mistake. The Tea Party and the Occupiers disagree about the meaning of most fundamental notion in American politics: Freedom.
Americans love freedom, and we celebrate it with flag pins on our lapels and renditions of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch. But just beneath the surface, Americans have radically different views of what freedom means. And these differences have defined our political battles for more than a hundred years.
On the Tea Party side stand those who see freedom as liberty from government constraint. These libertarians believe in a wide-open, unregulated marketplace where people can buy, sell, and trade as they want, unfettered by government restrictions. Hence the Tea Partiers rail against "Big Government" and oppose health care reform, worker protection laws, and social security.
This libertarian urge has a long history in America, and saw its heyday about a hundred years ago when the Supreme Court routinely struck down minimum wage laws and other protections for workers and consumers. The Court believed those protections were violations of "liberty" protected under the Constitution. For this reason, the Court proved to be the principal obstacle to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during his first term in office.
FDR sought to use government to provide assistance to those hurting from the Great Depression and to pull the nation out of the economic depths. But to libertarians, the New Deal was a violation of liberty. Using government to help people was inconsistent with a view of freedom that saw government as the biggest threat.
Even today, leading libertarians would rescind a host of government programs initiated over the last few generations, including Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, this view of freedom means that the Tea Partiers will not be particularly concerned about issues such as the widening income inequality in the United States. Such inequality is a product of markets, and should not be a source of worry.
On the other side -- personified by the Occupy protesters -- are those who have a more substantive and robust view of liberty than simply freedom from government. Instead, freedom can mean freedom from poverty and economic oppression. It can mean freedom from discrimination. It can mean freedom to breathe clean air or eat untainted food. It can mean freedom to learn in decent schools and universities. It can mean freedom from the fear that age, disease, or accident will cause you to lose your home or livelihood.
Franklin Roosevelt best articulated this positive notion of liberty when he argued that citizens had the right to "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear."
Notice that this view of freedom often requires government assistance and attention. To protect people from discrimination, you need government to penalize it. To ameliorate poverty, you need government to create educational systems, school lunch programs, and homeless shelters.
To address income inequality, the key issue of the Occupy movement, we cannot depend on the so-called "free market." (For more on how the "free" market is not so free, see my new book The Myth of Choice.) Rather, we need things that government can best provide -- oversight of executive compensation, protections for unions, a decent minimum wage, and a progressive tax system, for example.
Of course libertarians do not necessarily see all government activity as the Great Satan, and the Occupiers do not necessarily see government as the Great Savior. But the conflicting views on what freedom means will create an inevitable and deep-seated rift over the proper role of government.
No matter how similar the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers appear, they will never agree about most of the political questions that matter.