The Boston Tea Party: An Attack on Property Rights?

Column by Paul Bonneau.

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Here and there I have noticed some strange treatment of the Boston Tea Party among libertarians, a sort of shame that such an event has normally been celebrated in our culture. Were the participants bad people? Should we be ashamed of them?
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. This was a wanton destruction of private property in an age when private property was held in great esteem. The first obligation of any government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens.
The Boston Tea Party is a sobering event that raises difficult legal and moral issues. It is anything but the cause célèbre American historians have made of it. This wanton destruction of property was not well received in the colonies. Massachusetts was a known seedbed of hotheads and warmongers. Franklin was shocked and acknowledged that full restitution should be paid at once to the owners of the tea. Most Americans believed this way, but unfortunately the majority of Americans were to feel the heel of the British boot.
Perhaps Adams, writing for the Mises Institute, should have referred to the writings of the sage of the Mises Institute, Murray Rothbard. In Rothbard’s history, Conceived in Liberty, it’s explained that the issues were not so troubling after all, nor were the Sons of Liberty warmongers or evildoers. The property in question was obtained through state monopoly. Anyone wishing to take a ship to China to buy tea to sell in the colonies would have been thrown in a cage and perhaps worse, and had his ship confiscated, if the British Navy got hold of him. Throwing tea in the harbor was in no way an initiation of force; that occurred when the monopoly was granted. That occurred when Parliament proposed to jail anybody importing tea through unofficial channels. That occurred when only connected individuals were given the right to sell the tea in America (in Boston, two of Royal Governor Hutchinson’s sons and one nephew were included in this group).
Who were the victims? It is always illuminating to identify them, to get a sense of whether a crime is being committed. The victims were the tyrannical British government, its creature the East India Company and its crony shareholders, and the crony class in America who were to receive the concession for sale of tea, and who would actively participate in prosecuting anyone who smuggled tea to get around them.
The East India company was no ordinary private company. “By the... East India Company Act 1773..., the Parliament of Great Britain imposed a series of administrative and economic reforms and by doing so clearly established its sovereignty and ultimate control over the Company.” American colonists were also well aware that the East India Company had, through its depredations, caused a massive famine that killed one in every three people in Bengal. Perhaps they were reluctant to see such a monopoly fastened on their necks.
Of course Adams’ comment that, “The first obligation of any government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens,” is completely fantastic. The business of government is always war and plunder, the very opposite of protection. It does, however, protect the stolen loot of its cronies.
Benjamin Franklin’s reaction was not surprising. The man was a Tory and an opportunist, with his fingers in all sorts of questionable and ugly deals. When you read about the real man in Rothbard’s history, you won’t be too impressed. I’m afraid that like Lincoln, he’s a member of the court historian’s pantheon of American saints who does not after all, stand up to very close scrutiny.
This view of Charles Adams is one example how an uncritical understanding of property can actually serve to prop up the state. One wonders how he would have treated the plight of squatters on colonial New York’s great manorial estates (stolen from the Indians and handed over to cronies of the governors for political favors). Would he have sided with the crony class? Would he have equivocated about it with “a sobering event that raises difficult legal and moral issues”? Rothbard did not.
George Smith has a much better treatment of the event here.
I think Frederick Douglass had a more reasonable view on this sort of thing: "The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."
No, we don’t always have to follow the law, nor are we necessarily bad people if we don’t. No, property is not merely what the government says it is. It’s impossible to gain liberty without breaking tyrannical laws and without encroaching on at least some government-granted privileges and prerogatives. The difficulty is only in knowing where to stop, since virtually all real property at least, is tainted by government activity.

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