Yes, I know. The Tea Partiers didn’t know what they stood for. They complained about spending without saying what they wanted to cut. They were all supporters of George W. Bush and never complained when spending in his administration went through the roof. They protested taxation without representation when in fact they have representation. I know. But that’s not it.
No–as I recently learned from William Bernstein’s marvelous new history of international trade, the real reason is that the Boston Tea Party was a protest against a tax cut.
The Tea Act did not put a tax on tea: instead, it allowed the British East India Company to import tea into the colonies without having to pay a tariff and avoiding local middlemen. It thus represented a tax cut because the colonists could drink the stuff without having to pay the duties. Many of the biggest protestors were local merchants who made quite a handy profit out of being the middlemen and not coincidentally, smuggling illegal tea into the colonies. The smugglers were put out of business by the reduced tariffs.
Yes, the colonists were still upset that the old Townshend duties still applied to imports to the colonies. But it was quite irrational to destroy East India Company products, which avoided those taxes. Put another way, the Boston Tea Party is best understood as an early anti-globalization movement.
Come to think of it, though, it makes perfect historical sense.
Tea Partiers irrational? Check.
Tea Partiers protesting a tax cut (i.e. Obama’s tax cut to working Americans)? Check.
Tea Partiers doing crazy things in the service of wealthier vested interests? Check.
Some things never change.