The country witnessed a level of political engagement last week that we haven’t seen in decades. Thousands of Americans turned out in cities across the country to demonstrate their frustration and dissatisfaction with the current tax and spend policies of both political parties.

The estimated 2000 tea parties that blanketed the nation on Tax Day were more than a protest of the $180 billion economic stimulus package passed last spring. They were more than a response to the $345 billion housing bailout passed last summer. And they were more than a reaction to the reckless $787 billion “Recovery and Reinvestment Plan” Congress rushed through and President Obama signed this past winter.

This surge of public disapproval and, yes, anger, was a response to the fiscal incompetence at all levels of government, from local to state to federal. In the face of serious and debilitating budget shortfalls, states like California are raising taxes by the billions.

One of the largest protests took place in Sacramento, CA, where taxpayers came out to condemn the $13 billion tax hike the state legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger passed in February and to march against Proposition 1A, which Californians will vote on in May and would extend these tax increases for two years.

And it should be no surprise that New Yorkers also took to the streets. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial noted, “Like the old competition to have the world’s tallest building, New York can’t resist having the nation’s highest taxes.” Albany’s push to be number one will mean that those in the top tax bracket in New York City will pay more than 12.6 percent – two points higher than even California.

Other states are joining the trend: Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin have all proposed tax increases.

Certainly the fear of an increasing tax burden was motivation enough for many protesters. But it’s not simply the ballooning budgets and obscene tax hikes that drove thousands in every state – both red and blue – to demonstrate against their government.

Americans were responding to the way an ever-expanding government threatens the country’s most basic values of virtue and liberty.

The original 1773 Boston Tea Party was held by colonists who had grown wary of the increasing centralization of British power that threatened their self-government and freedom.

Today we’re seeing a similar reaction to an increasingly out of control, distant, and arrogant federal monstrosity. Not only are we witnessing a dramatic increase in the size of government, but we are also seeing a fundamental transformation in the relationship between government, corporations, and citizens.

Just as importantly, there seems to be a shift in the way we think about responsibility. Government now rewards failure and punishes success, by bailing out mismanaged businesses, schools, and states, and even private citizens who have imprudently taken on more debt than they can afford. Americans are tired of it.

While the country is facing difficult economic times, the bottom line is more spending, higher taxes, and bigger government are not the answers to our economic woes.

If Washington – and Sacramento and Albany – want to encourage economic productivity they ought to support policies that encourage work, saving, and investment. They should permanently reduce taxes on savings and investments, lower corporate tax rates, and execute long-term entitlement reform.

Doing this might require a bit more creativity on the part of government. But no one said change would be easy.

It took eight years, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and a bad economy for President Bush’s approval ratings to bottom out and Congressional Republicans to be decimated. So it would be foolish to think one day of protests will have any immediate effect on President Obama’s poll numbers or the behavior of our legislators.

It’s not just the first months of the Obama Presidency that led normal citizens, many of whom have never before participated in a political protest, to join the tea parties. It was also a result of lingering frustration with Republican leaders, who oversaw their own spending binge and launched the bailouts in the sad last days of the Bush Administration.

It’s not about political party or ideology. It’s about freedom and responsibility. They are powerful concepts and the commitment Americans showed to those principles is potentially very powerful politically.

The Boston Tea Party was perhaps the pivotal event that led the colonists down the road to revolution and ultimately independence. Leaders in both parties ought to take this week’s tea parties very seriously.

Their jobs could depend on it.