Named after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the Tea Party protests represent widespread outrage at our government’s ever increasing power, usurpations of our liberties and the fact that America is moving away from its founding principles.

While Tea Party activists are eclectic — and unfortunately include a few anti-government fanatics, as well as those who see an opportunity to push their religious agendas — the vast majority are rallying around a significant and important theme that needs to be recognized and supported.

The movement as a whole is not focused on a narrow issue or political party, but the basic relationship between government and citizen. Republican politicians have been turned away and booed off the stage for their support of bailouts and cap-and-trade, and representatives from both parties are being challenged on whether the legislation they are signing is consistent with their oath to uphold the Constitution.

Rapid increases in governmental power under George W. Bush and even faster increases under President Obama have brought the issue of limited government to the forefront. That our government both nationalizes car companies and banks, and interprets the Interstate Commerce Clause as giving it carte blanche on everything from outlawing marijuana to forcing individuals to buy insurance, raises an important question: should individuals be free to decide what they can and must do, or is government their master?

Central to the Tea Parties is the idea that government cannot do anything it wants — that there are certain limitations placed on it by the Constitution. Which leads to many important questions: What is the proper role of government? What powers should it have? Do individuals have a moral and political right to pursue their own lives and happiness, or can their interests be sacrificed for some alleged “common good?” What are rights and how are they violated?

This has fueled an explosion of interest in America’s founding documents and the writings of revolutionary thinkers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Books like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” which provides a moral defense of individual rights, are selling at record rates despite having been published over 50 years ago. Whether Tea Party activists will come to understand and defend these ideas has yet to be seen, but the renewed interest in limited government and its underlying basis is a welcome advance. It is in stark contrast to the view that pervades our institutions.

The Tea Party movement is routinely ridiculed and dismissed by our so-called intellectuals. Liberal mainstream media and politicians scoff at the movement and attempt to paint protesters as racists, anarchists and violent emotionalists. Not only is this wildly inaccurate, but it highlights a profound disdain for ideas.

Observe the array of recent student opinions on health care and the Tea Parties. With rare exceptions, students sneer at attempts to identify basic principles and ridicule those who even raise the issue of whether our country is moving toward socialism or fascism. Attempting to name the basic nature of our president’s policies or our country’s direction is regarded as fear-mongering.

More broadly, pundits regard their worldview as self-evident, requiring no arguments and recognizing no alternative views. Those who argue against government health care, for example, are derided as “anti-reformists,” as if there are no other views on health care reform and no wider issues exist. The argument that health care reform requires both respecting the freedom of doctors, patients and insurance companies, as well as removing current crippling government intervention is simply evaded.

Liberal commentators routinely opine on what they see as a blatant contradiction: How can Tea Partiers be against government run health care and simultaneously protest Medicare cuts? Do they want more services or less? What the pundits cannot comprehend is that these Tea Partiers resent being made dependants of the state. Having been forced to sacrifice their earnings and judgment for years, prohibiting them from saving and planning for their own medical needs, even their ability to use the services they were forced to depend on will be rationed away.

There is no contradiction between advocating for freedom in health care and holding the government accountable to those who were forced into dependency. But government paternalism is so ingrained in the minds of these critics that they cannot conceive of a non-dependent form of existence. As one Tea Party sign put it, “It’s the liberty, stupid.”

But liberty does not fall from heaven or sustain itself automatically; it must be defended. When asked whether America is a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Keeping it requires arguing for it, which requires understanding and defending the fundamental moral and political principles it depends upon. The Tea Parties are perhaps the first step in that direction. Let’s hope so.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.