Neither Populism Nor Libertarianism

Populist LibertarianLook, I’m not a fool. I know that when I lavish praise on a conservative like Sean Trende, he will soon disappoint me by saying something stupid. Hell, in Trende’s case, he was being stupid even while being smart. What I mean is that his analysis was right: the Republican Party could still win elections with a New Southern Strategy. That was some smart number crunching. But he was always being stupid by thinking it was a good idea. As I’ve argued again and again: this is what the Republican Party will do, not what it should do. Well, if you dig deeper into the second page of his fourth article on this subject, you will see that he is arguing, as the great Mike Konczal pointed out, that the Republican Party needs to become populist libertarian.

That makes sense, because I have little doubt that Trende is himself a libertarian. But as Konczal noted, he isn’t the only personal calling for a populist libertarian turn for the Republicans. Before I get to this ridiculous idea, however, let me just take a moment to discuss just how incoherent the idea of a “populist libertarian” is. There are two ways to define “populism.” You can look at it historically. The populist movement of the late 19th century was mostly a movement of farmers against the trusts and for free silver. In other words, they wanted the government to stop monopolies and to encourage inflation. But you can also look at “populism” as it is commonly used: belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.

Does any of this sound like libertarianism to you? If it does, you don’t know libertarianism. It is the most elitist political philosophy since the fall of hereditary monarchy. Sure: certain proponents try to dress it down to appeal to the masses, but the masses are far too practical for a philosophy as theoretical as libertarianism. What’s more, libertarians hate inflation. They consider it the most vile form of taxation. This is an elite opinion, by the way. The people who hate inflation are those who are owed. Those who owe, like modest inflation. What’s more, libertarians hate the anti-trust laws. “What’s wrong with monopolies?” they ask. “If a monopoly starts gouging, another company will come in and steal its costumers!” I thoroughly debunked this idea in, Beyond Patent Protection.

The point here is that there is no such thing as “populist libertarianism.” What I suspect proponents really mean when they use this term is that the Republican Party should lay off the social issues. Because when it comes to economic issues, the Republican Party’s rhetoric is all libertarian. It isn’t in fact, of course; the Republicans want to spend way more on welfare than the Democrats; it is just that the Republicans want to spend it on the rich which is why their welfare costs so much more. But the idea is that if the Republican Party just abandoned all those social issues, northern whites would come streaming back into the party.

Who knows? That might be true. The problem is that if the Republican Party backed off of its homophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and war mongering, it would lose almost its entire political base. And remember: the Democratic Party has far more actual libertarian economic policy. (Social policy too!) Libertarianism isn’t just a brand name. Libertarians like balanced budgets. Which political party has made any progress on that over the last 35 years? Libertarians like small business (some are even against corporations, which are, after all, a government provided status). Who provides better policy for the small business owner? When it comes to courting libertarian minded voters, I think the Democrats will do okay.

But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter because there are very, very few libertarian minded voters. Mike Konczal explained this well:

Though public ownership isn’t a popular argument these days, public regulation and accountability is. So a truly “populist” agenda might call for a larger active state rather than a smaller one—particularly if the agenda is meant to energize people about how powerful, big corporations are ripping them off. People are mad about their cable and phone bills being too expensive, or their mortgage servicer screwing them, or because they have a loan from the bank that they didn’t even know about. Repealing corporate tax loopholes, while important, is a second-order concern to these voters in their day-to-day lives.

What is most troubling about Republicans calling for their party to be more “populist libertarian” is the first word, not the second. The Republican Party is always claiming to be libertarian. But it is most dangerous when it convinced people that it is populist. We saw that most of all with Ronald Reagan. But we also saw it with George Bush Jr. Remember all the stories about who you would rather have a beer with? It isn’t real populism, of course. It is, perhaps, cultural populism. “Vote for me, because I’m like you, but don’t look at my policies because they are all designed to fuck over people like you!” We even got that from near-billionaire Mitt Romney. Yes siree! He understood what it was like to struggle. He had to cash in some bonds from his trust fund just to get through college!

But in a sense, Sean Trende is right yet again. That is how the Republicans will take back the White House if they do it. It certainly won’t be because of their policies. It will be because they get a candidate who can fake it to the common man. I know that won’t be Marco Rubio. But it could be Paul Ryan; he has excellent populist rhetoric. In fact, he is the prototypical “populist libertarian”: populist rhetoric and libertarian-ish policies. Or to put it more bluntly: populist rhetoric and elitist policies. Will the American people yet again fall for that bait and switch? I wouldn’t bet against it. But if it does happen, we will get neither populism nor libertarianism.


The image at the top is a common one that libertarians use to show that they are for freedom while everyone else isn’t. But note that they don’t place themselves opposite conservatives or liberals; they place themselves opposite populists. That’s another thing about libertarians: they aren’t too sanguine about democracy. They see it as something like mob rule. But of course they do! They know that their political philosophy is deeply unpopular: unpopulist.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Neither Populism Nor Libertarianism

  1. heh, I know you don’t think much of Libertarianism.

    On social issues I would call myself libertarian, I’m a "my sister’s keeper" libertarian. Let’s say you are personally opposed to drug use, abortion or homosoxuality. But if that was your sister (or brother) who was using drugs or seeking an abortion would you put them in jail? Most would not. If they committed murder though, that’s different. This assumes you actually love your siblings, but if you do its a good quick test of whether criminal law is appropriate to regulate aspects of society.

    John Stuart Mill’s "On Liberty" is from where I derive my opinions on libertarianism in social policy.

    I do agree that much of what passes for "libertarian" economic thinking is absurd.

  2. @Andy – I admire Mill. It is strange that he is considered a libertarian, however. He was the first person to dismantle pure libertarian thought. I largely agree with him.

    The biggest problem with libertarianism, however, is just that it is a nice sounding justification for conservatism. Vote for a libertarian government and you’ll get a conservative government. Of course, my thinking has been greatly affected by years in the trenches with libertarians, 95% of whom were closet Republicans. The first real clue was just how split they were on the issue of abortion. I’m not talking 20 week abortion here; I’m talking zygote abortion. Anyone who thinks that 16 cells of tissue has equal rights to its female host doesn’t really give a shit about freedom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.