Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Infelicitous Metaphor

It being April 15, there's a movement afoot to host various "tea parties" in protest against the fact that we have to pay taxes. Without commenting on the merits of protests against taxes, might I say that the comparison to the Boston Tea Party of 1773 is both overwrought and infelicitous?

The "party" was in response to what was called an "oppressive" tax by Great Britain on tea. Britain had enacted the tax in order to give the East India Tea Co. a monopoly on the colonial tea trade. The purpose for the monopoly was to help subsidize that company's role in policing India for Great Britain. In other words, Great Britain did not want the expense of administering India, or those portions of India that were under its control, and so had a private corporation do it. The "party" occurred in Boston, where several "patriots" dressed as Mohawk Indians raided a British ship that held the first installment of tea shipments and threw the tea overboard into the harbor, causing much expense to the company.

First, the current parties' evocation of the original party in 1773 is overwrought. In 1773, it wasn't really about tea. The Tea Act had, interestingly enough, made tea cheaper because it eliminated most of the other duties on tea in order to make the East India monopoly more workable by undercutting the prices smugglers could offer. The point of protest was that the colonists had no representation in parliament. Colonists, at least those who owned a specific amount of property and met certain (racial and gender specific) criteria (depending on the colony), voted for members of their colonial assemblies, but not for MPs. The present-day "party" goers cannot make this claim. I betcha almost all of them have the right to vote. Moreover, in response to the original tea party, Britain enacted a series of "coercive" laws designed to collectively punish Massachusetts for the party. These laws arguably went too far. Would the current regime tolerate any such measure now?

Second, the comparison is infelicitous. The colonists were much less taxed than their British brethren, most of whom did not have the right to vote for their MP's either. One reason for prior colonial taxes (though not the Tea Act) that had so raised the ire of colonists was to help defray the costs of protecting Indians from the depredations of white colonists who did not intend to honor the peace settlement that Britain had made with the Indians after the Seven Years War, a war started by the colonists, fought largely for their benefit, and subsidized to a great extent by the promise of the British parliament to reimburse colonists for their expenses in fighting the war. (To be fair, colonists claimed afterward that reimbursements weren't as complete as promised.) The taxes in question--the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties--were not "oppressive," however unjust the means of representation used to enact them.