Conservatives, including those of the Tea Party variety, aren’t “anti-government.” In most respects they are pro-government to the point of authoritarianism. What they really oppose is any form of cooperative or collective solution to the problems of a complex industrial (or post-industrial) society -– especially when the beneficiaries are people they regard with suspicion or fear.

The Tea Party movement has done the larger conservative cause a big favor by giving it a fresh patina of sexiness. I’m not referring here to Sarah Palin, or to Rand Paul’s curly locks, but to the slightly outlaw, vaguely anarchistic, allegedly leaderless image the Tea Partiers like to project – and that the corporate media have bought into so readily. There’s a palpable frisson – an almost pleasurable thrill of danger – that courses through the Republican leadership and the Washington press corps alike when, for example, someone like Christine O’Donnell wins a senatorial primary or a few thousand Real Americans with guns assemble on the Washington Mall.

It all coalesces into a basic characterization of the Tea Party as “anti-government,” more radical than the radicals, or at least more truly nonconformist than those liberal Democratic do-gooders with their lifetime government posts, academic tenure, and subsistence-wage jobs at various non-profits. Sometimes, they push the rhetorical envelope pretty far. Here’s what Mat Staver, chair of Liberty Counsel, a Christian-right legal advocacy group, and dean of the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law told The Nation’s Sarah Posner. Noting that “there are rights that come from God,” Staver threatened that

when government doesn’t protect [those rights], it’s our duty and responsibility to change it, worst case scenario, throw it off and start over.

Those on the left have tended to take this stuff seriously. Posner writes of the “uprising energy” of the Tea Partiers and doesn’t question whether they really do believe in smaller government, less government interference in people’s lives – or else. This is a remarkable turnaround from just three years ago, when liberal pundit Paul Waldman, anticipating the bedraggled end of the Bush presidency, told us with finality that “there is no political benefit to proclaiming one’s opposition to big government.”  . . .

A lot has happened since then, but the fact remains that over the past 40 years, conservatives have become expert at dressing up their causes with a sort of maverick hipness that helps sell their political agenda. The serious question is whether the Tea Partiers, or predecessors like the militia movement or the Libertarian Party, really are anti-government. Because we could all do with some clarity as to what these people really want.

No one who has any fondness for “government” need be alarmed, I’d suggest.

Aside from Rand Paul, no Tea Party or even establishment-conservative candidate or recognized leader supports downsizing the U.S. military, scaling back its footprint abroad, or projecting American power any less forcefully than at present. None has called for decreasing the State’s presence in our lives by giving police officers less leeway to stop, search, and more seriously abuse citizens on the streets (except, of course, when they’re attending a Tea Party rally). But in what ways is the power of government more obvious and intrusive than these?

Immigration is one of the primary Tea Party issues, and on this the alleged revolutionaries are close to unanimous that U.S. borders must be closed, barricaded, guarded, and locked down. Undocumented workers must be hunted down and expelled, their employers forced to ID them and turn them in on the slightest suspicion. If ever truly enforced, all this would require a massive new bureaucracy-cum police force with unprecedented powers to pry and surveille.

Many advocates of immigration crackdown call for creation of a national ID card, a system of Soviet-style internal passports completely at odds with American tradition. None express any concern that the Immigration and Naturalization Service now runs a mini-gulag for the undocumented persons it snatches. I suspect a lot of Tea Party candidates think similarly.

Social Security is another example. Most Tea Partiers, in recent polls, place the issue pretty far down their list of concerns. But their candidates delight in labeling the program a Ponzi scheme and a rip-off. Someone who’s anti-government would no doubt call for Social Security’s abolition. But Tea Party favorites like Paul Ryan call for turning a big chunk of the program into a set of private investment accounts that would funnel workers’ payroll taxes into the hands of major financial services firms (the rest of Social Security would be slashed and left to wither away).

Conservatives like to argue that this wouldn’t actually be “privatization,” and I halfway agree with them. The government would have a very big job in this scheme, facilitating and administering the systematic transfer of wealth into accounts earning fees for Wall Street. The Social Security Administration would have to get bigger, not smaller, just to handle the recordkeeping involved. “Choice” would be limited to a menu of mutual funds and annuities selected by bureaucrats, heavily influenced by investment firms. Is this a recipe for less government?

Now let’s look at education. Home schoolers of a right-wing bent would seem to be poster families for the Tea Party ideal of rugged independence. But are they? Home schooling families in Maine and other states have successfully demanded that their children be allowed access to such public school resources as textbooks (often quite expensive), physical education and science classes, and extracurricular activities.

This means that in some parts of the country, government is subsidizing home schooling. In New Mexico, for example, public school systems have obliged these families by setting up special programs for home-schooled kids who want to transition into public high schools. The bottom line: more expense and more infrastructure, not less.

It takes a lot of government, it seems, to mold a nation of anti-government mavericks.

Turning the Tea Party phenomenon into a coherent political movement has been difficult, because so many conflicting themes percolate just beneath the surface. Some activists express genuine outrage at the bailout of Wall Street banks – although offer few solutions – and movement puppeteers like Dick Armey work hard to ignore Rand Paul’s antiwar views. But if we look at Tea Party-ism as an offshoot of a conservative ideology that’s been evolving for the past 50 years – roughly since the “Draft Goldwater” effort of 1960 – a more consistent point of view emerges.

Looked at one way, Social Security, Medicare, other social services, and public schools are part of government. What sets them apart from other, more punitive aspects of government, however, is that they are attempts to meet human needs through cooperative, collective means. Social Security and Medicare pay out benefits that every working person is entitled to receive – and required to support through a dedicated payroll tax.

The public school model is different, but analogous in that every property owner supports the system through property taxes. The framework is social solidarity: we support these programs because they are aspects of the common good, not because they yield a profit or pass a theoretical cost-benefit test. The economic model is mutual aid: everyone chips in and everyone can depend on the support of society when the need arises.

Social solidarity is anathema to conservative thinking. Margaret Thatcher could have been summing up the last 50 years – if not more – of right-wing thought when she declared ,

Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.

This is where the larger conservative movement and right-wing populists like the Tea Party come together. Conservatives loath all institutions of social solidarity – throw in unions and genuinely leaderless forces like the campaign against corporate globalization and the movements of the landless in developing countries along with national pension and health care systems – because they serve as a refuge from or even an alternative to an economic system that insists on absorbing everything into the market. Conservatism today can be defined accurately as a program to eliminate anything that exists outside that system.

The curious thing about the Tea Partiers is that when you press them on the topic, few have any bad feelings about Social Security, for example. It’s the recipients of benefits, as caricatured in the right-wing media, who they dislike. Jacob Weisberg in Newsweek notes correctly that,

Other than nostalgia, the strongest emotion at Tea Parties is resentment, defined as placing blame for one’s woes on those either above or below you in the social hierarchy.

Or, as one respondent asserted back in April on the conservative NewsBusters Web site,

Most legitimate ‘tea party’ types are responsible, dependable, informed, law abiding people who probably have some sort of job or business or source of income…….and that is one reason they are out there……. The war protestors, the G8 protestors, the abortion protestors…..God…..the list goes on………are often made up of ‘professional’ protestors who are deep deep lib whack jobs who don’t have much responsibility or allegiance to what a lot of us would call ‘normal’ American values………..although a LOT of these people are keeping themselves fed, clothed, and housed because of the sweat off of OUR brows!!!

That kind of resentment isn’t perfectly congruent with the conservative project, but it has no other obvious home to go to. Likewise with their views on government. Tea Partiers aren’t anti-government – they merely insist that government serve their interests alone. What’s understood by the canny purveyors of anti-government rhetoric who increasingly direct the Tea Party movement is that government is a necessary partner in achieving the market society they envision, not an obstacle.

None of which is nearly as sexy as dressing up in a Minuteman uniform and hinting darkly about overthrowing the government, of course. But posing as an anarchist doesn’t make you one.