Speaking of libertarians, Timothy P. Carney is over at the Washington Examiner today. He wants to explain to us, Libertarian Populism: The Economic Prescription for the Right. It is a list of policies that he claims constitute libertarian populism. He even complains about Paul Krugman calling the whole idea of libertarian populism “bunk.” But his whole article demonstrates that Krugman was right.
I’m not saying that there is no overlap between populism and libertarianism. But as I know from years of disappointment, if you vote for someone who talks libertarian, what you will get is straight up conservative policy. You may vote for the guy who is calling for an end to all welfare, but the policy you will get is an end to individual welfare. So if the people are dumb enough to vote for a politician who says he is a libertarian populist, they will be getting a conservative who will put anti-choice, pro-big-business people on the federal courts.
So what does Carney offer as policy positions? He wants to break up the big banks. That is anti-libertarian but very populist. That will absolutely not happen. In fact, a candidate probably wouldn’t even campaign on that because it would offend too many donors. It’s his second position that made me write this article: he wants to eliminate (or at least cut) Social Security. You know what they call Social Security? The most popular government program ever. Very populist! Next up: corporate welfare. Two of the three examples he produces are from the farm bill. That’s the farm bill that the conservatives just cut in half; the farm subsidies part was increased relative to the Senate bill. Apart from that, liberals have long been for cutting farm subsidies. What’s more, in general, conservatives are way more in favor of corporate welfare than liberals are.
Carney also wants a “cleaner tax code.” That is just another name for raising taxes on the poor and middle classes, and lowering them on the rich. Of course, Carney says, “I don’t think the tax rate has to be flat.” But it is clear that he thinks it ought to be flatter and that totally flat would be a good thing. That is what people mean when they talk about simplifying the tax code. That’s what Simpson-Bowles is pushing. That’s what Paul Ryan is pushing. And that was what Mitt Romney was pushing. You remember Mitt Romney: he was the guy that libertarian populism is supposed to save the Republican Party from.
His approach to healthcare is pretty much to kick people off their employer provided plans. He says that this limits competition between insurers. There are a couple of things wrong with this. First, insurer profits are not a big problem; the problem with insurance companies is all the money they spend denying care. The big problems are drug patents and great limits on who can practice medicine in this country. Rather than offering a true libertarian approach to these problems, he just ignores them and focuses on minor issues. It’s also interesting that conservatives scream about how disruptive Obamacare will be, but have no problem greatly upsetting the current system by removing support from the employer-based system. He also wants to cut Medicare. Of course.
There are couple of other things that don’t exactly fit. He wants to cut down on regulation to allow more raw-milk dairy farms and such. And he wants to stop the revolving door of people in government going into lobbying. This second one is shockingly anti-libertarian, but at least populist. Regardless, almost all of Carney’s libertarian and populist ideas are marginal. In addition to not dealing with patents and medical trade, he doesn’t mention our out of control copyright system and says nothing about the very populist idea of a financial speculation tax.
He ends his article by saying, “These are acute libertarian populist policies. In the long run, a freer market means more competition, means higher wages.” Really?! Almost without exception, his ideas are not libertarian or not populist. Freer markets do not necessarily mean more competition; that’s why we have antitrust laws. It is also not clear that a freer market means higher wages. But regardless, in the long run we are all dead. One of the good uses of the government is to soften the disruptions of a free market. (And what’s with that highly unusual use of “acute”? It’s like Romney’s “severe conservative” comment.)
What all of Carney’s article shows is that libertarian populism is simply rebranding of tired old conservative policies. There is basically nothing in his list of policies that Romney and Ryan weren’t talking about during the last election. Conservatives have never tried to sell tax cuts for the rich as a good thing because rich people are so great. It was always that tax cuts for the rich would be good for the rest of us. Remember “trickle down economics”? Now it is about giving the “job creators” more money so they can hire us. But the article is good in the way that Sean Trende’s articles were: it shows what conservatives will do. The problem is that Carney really thinks he’s onto something new.