Last week I spent some time at the National Taxpayers Conference in Crystal City, just over the river from Washington DC, trying to figure what the hardcore fiscal conservatives of the National Taxpayers Union had on their agenda in this era of out-of-control spending and government war on free enterprise. To my chagrin I found the event to be a shadow of what I understand it was in previous years. It was underattended, with a weak schedule of speakers and an air of resignation which was almost palpable. I saw too many people talking about how to live with the excesses of the Obama era and too few discussing ways to fight back and preserve our most basic economic freedoms.
I’m sure that some of the low attendance can be blamed on the economy, but when is it more important for believers in responsible fiscal policy to organize than when times are darkest and the government is spending us into economic serfdom? The NTU’s publications talk about leading a “national tax revolt” but what I found at the conference was about 200 of the same old think-tank staffers and DC insiders talking at each other with only a handful of grassroots activists in attendance, looking bewildered and out of place.
There were some good speakers and interesting events on the program, most notably Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal and John Stossel from ABC News, but the tone for the event was really set by the fact that the opening speaker was Sen. John McCain, who may look like a fiscal conservative by DC standards, but really doesn’t have a lot of credibility based on his record of lukewarm efforts and marginal accomplishments. It was clearly a bad sign that the bio of McCain in the program had far more about his war experiences than it did about anything he had ever done to reduce taxes or government spending. Sadly the same was true for most of the other speakers. They had plenty of accomplishments to list, but few of those were in the area of shrinking government and saving taxpayers money.
The breakout sessions had more to offer than the major speakers did, especially if you were interested in running a local political group or organizing tax protests. Groups like the Sam Adams Alliance and the Leadership Institute had good ideas and valuable things to teach grassroots activists in sessions like “Building an Effecitve Grassroots Organization” and “Getting Beyond Bylaws and Boards,” but their knowledge would have been put to better use had more than a handful of actual grassroots activists been in attendance.
I actually found the most interesting activity of the conference to be walking around the small exhibitor area and seeing what some of the other groups sponsoring the conference were up to. One organization I encountered for the first time was the American Legislative Exchange Council, a very interesting group which promotes conservative legislative issues nationwide to state legislatures. They must be doing something right because they’ve earned the ire of the rabidly anti-capitalist NRDC which has a little hate site all about ALEC called ALECwatch. I also had a good talk with some of the people from Liberty Features Syndicate, who are working to promote liberty-oriented content in the media and seem to be off to a good start.
The other good thing about the conference was a chance to hear a presentation from John Stossel at the Friday night reception. Stossel is always entertaining and informative, and while I think this presentation was a bit underprepared and rushed compared to other times I’ve seen him, he still got very positive response from the crowd and communicated his pro-liberty, common sense message very effectively.
One of the things which caught my attention at the conference is that a lot of the participating groups seem to get their funding from the same fairly short list of sources. I love the fact that the Koch brothers throw money at pro-liberty groups like candy, but when they’re behind almost all of the participants the event becomes a bit like a Koch Foundation staff picnic. When you have paid activists from one group talking to paid activists from another group and they all get their money from the same sources, it’s all a little too inbred. It’s a closed circle and it’s going nowhere because they are all talking to the wrong people and the real grassroots activists just aren’t there.
The NTU puts on a nice conference and they certainly raise valid issues and concerns, but something’s missing. They act like there’s “movement” or a “tax revolt” but nothing is really going to happen except for lots of talking until they find a way to broaden their message and get real citizen activists involved. That clearly was not happening at this conference, so a lot of money and effort was being expended while very little was being accomplished — a frustrating situation to observe when you know how much the nation needs real change and real activism for liberty and fiscal responsibility.