The 240th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party

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Today is the 240th anniversary of the act of civil disobedience against taxation, corporatism, and colonialism known as the Boston Tea Party.

The economics of the situation that precipitated the event were quite complex, however, and about more than a simple tax increase on tea. As noted here by Edmond Bradley, a monopoly over the tea trade had been granted to favored corporate interests by the British Crown, which made the price of tea artificially high to begin with.

Charles Beard in his The Rise of American Civilization frames the conflict as a matter of “Colony vs Metropolis” in which the metropolitan center of government power in London exploited the people in the colonies through crony capitalist/corporatist policy.

Charles Adams explains how a British corporate welfare scheme to undercut smuggled Dutch tea is what led to the Tea Party:

The Boston Tea Party was a turning point in colonial reaction to British rule. By 1773 the tax issue was becoming obscure. Both parties were moving toward war.

Recently American postage stamps have depicted the Boston Tea Party as a glorious act of defying British colonialism. Most people believe it was a protest against British taxes on tea, but this is not true. American tea merchants had been boycotting British tea for five years. Smuggled Dutch tea was used throughout the colonies. In response, the British government decided to remove the duties on East Indies tea when it arrived in Britain so it could be sold in America at a price cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. In addition, a monopoly on this cheap tea was given to loyal British merchants in the colonies. American tea smugglers would be put out of business. The Crown’s plan was based on the assumption that American consumers would not boycott low-priced English tea, but would purchase it rather than the higher-priced, smuggled Dutch product.

The implication of this to American merchants was frightening. If a monopoly could be granted for tea, it could be granted for other products as well. Economic sanctions of this kind could destroy American merchants. In protest, Bostonian merchants disguised themselves as Indians, boarded merchant ships loaded with tea, and threw the tea into the harbor.

Lew Rockwell explains how, fundamentally, the Boston Tea Party was about free trade and against taxes and special privileges:

The Declaration of Independence accuses the King of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”-with the second directly following the first. It is impossible to understand the meaning of this without understanding that the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the use of trade by the state to benefit some at the expense of others.

Our agenda today ought to be exactly that of the Sons of Liberty in Boston: the right to economic enterprise should be unimpeded by taxes or special privileges. This is all that true free traders, in the tradition of the American revolutionaries, have ever demanded.

Some libertarians, including Charles Adams himself, object to the Boston Tea Party as an attack on private property. Classifying the East India Company as “private” however, would not be quite accurate. It is important to note that the East India Company, earlier in the century, had been bailed out by the British government by being merged wit the John Company in an early example of the Too Big to Fail doctrine at work. As a government monopolist enjoying special favors from the Empire, the East India company at the time was “private” in the way that the government sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae was “private” before it collapsed and became a de facto property of the Federal government itself. Yes, many private investors had sunk money into the enterprise, but the East India Company itself was, for all practical purposes, an arm of the Imperial government created to enhance the mercantilist goals of the British Crown.  Thus, when they attacked the East India Company, the colonists saw their act as an attack on the Crown itself.

To this day, the Boston Tea Party remains an effective symbol of protest against the crony capitalism of national elites, and in the United States today, as we face an increasingly mercantilist and even fascist regime, the Boston Tea Party is as relevant as ever.

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