The Libertarian Populist Agenda

By Ben Domenech - June 5, 2013

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Where the populist libertarians are less interested is in the immediate reform of Social Security and Medicare – but this is just a lesser priority for them, not something they reject entirely. While I am sure Bobby Jindal is dedicated to reforming Medicare, he is more focused on talking about growth and balanced budgets, and less on leading off with competitive bidding.

As for failing to target the working class sufficiently: the truth, despite much of the left’s complaints, is that economic mobility has actually remained fairly strong even in this lackluster economy, and America's poor are – in real (consumption) and nominal (when you add wages, transfers and benefits) terms – doing better than ever when compared to previous generations. In fact, most of the biggest problems with today’s economy are the result of government, which has damaged the labor market with awful incentives (disability, overgenerous unemployment, awful retraining programs, minimum wages and other barriers to entry, tax/regulatory discrimination against small businesses, etc.) which need to be eliminated. Republicans haven’t been aggressive about pushing out an agenda for working moms, when getting the government out of the way is exactly the sort of policy push they need to hear, in more tangible terms.

Libertarian populism strikes at the heart of these problems by going beyond "tax cuts for the rich", and instead targeting bold reforms which go beyond tweaking the state and actually take an axe to it. Consider the tax issue as a central aspect of this: you argue for a flat code in order to achieve a flatter code, one which limits the abusive power of the IRS, generates economic growth, and prevent cronies from lobbying for, and benefiting from, loopholes individuals and small businesses can never access. It takes on the sacred cows of the tax code and the existing Wall Street paradigm of Blankfein, Dimon, and Schumer as inherently corrupt, and uses this assault as an inoculation against liberal attacks that they are merely about approaches which favor the rich. From my perspective, there is far more intrinsic appeal to this bold approach than in merely arguing for rate tweaks and credits.

The appeal of libertarian populism is that it refuses to cede the philosophical battle to the side of big government – and the permanence of a broken welfare/regulatory state and convoluted tax code – before the argument is even joined. Instead, libertarian populism can and should be cast in the proper light: the sober reality of our dire fiscal situation; the abject brokenness of our welfare state; tax, education and regulatory systems that retard economic opportunity, punish success, hurt the poor and middle class, and reward cronies; and a federal government that wants control over almost every aspect of our lives, from the raw milk we drink to the lightbulbs we use and the toilets we flush.

As an approach which frames limited government not just as a safeguard of personal liberty, but a way to offer wide-ranging opportunities, enhance economic mobility, and undermine rent-seeking elites, it represents a real break from the party’s approach to policy setting over the course of decades. It is bolder, yes – but it is also far simpler, more idealistic, and more coherent. Most Americans of all political walks understand that our broken system is rigged, and not for the little guy, and they resent it immeasurably. When the Beltway Burkeans argue for good governance reforms, they don’t tap into these motivations with anything approaching such passions.

In this, as in so many other areas, libertarian populists do not believe the current system is fixable because it was never intended to – and simply cannot – accomplish the goals it is attempting to meet. The problems we currently face – of cronyism, waste, abuse, disincentives, and so on – are not flaws in government but instead the inevitable result of expanding it far beyond its intentionally-limited design. Smarter government cannot solve them – only markets, individuals, and civil society can.

I suspect libertarian populism could also be appealing in ways Douthat does not fully address – namely, that populist libertarians are about letting individuals and neighborhoods live their own lives to a larger degree than other strands of the right. Paul has argued explicitly that this localism could have more appeal to communities which reject the Santorum and Romney threads of Republicanism. This has yet to be tested to a significant degree, but this emphasis strikes me as far more convincing than the alternative. When a former anti-drug crusader and social conservative like Ken Cuccinelli embraces the concept that states should decide for themselves on the issue of marijuana legalization, it’s a sign that the populists are moving more toward a new understanding of the importance of liberty.

Douthat frames much of his critique around the most libertarian of the libertarianish: Rand Paul. Paul is no Bill Clinton or David Cameron (that’s Chris Christie’s turf). But he is incredibly gifted politically, and he is also the tip of the spear. Alongside him are figures like Jindal, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz, who tend more toward the populism than the libertarianism of Paul, but share his skepticism of big and have no qualms about embracing bolder reforms. Lee's vision is particularly intriguing (in part because his anti-interventionist qualifications are more tangible): it offers an olive branch to the Burkeans, as if to say "just because we've moved on from Classic Coke doesn't mean we've forgotten its importance."

Regardless of Paul's presidential hopes, this indicates that this strand of thought is bigger than just one 2016 candidate or politician - and indeed, that libertarian populism could prevail in taking over the party simply by tugging the other candidates toward its appeal. Paul's red meat may need tenderizing, but it's still the right cut.

Much of the debate about conservative reform amounts to a wager on which GOP option is more appealing to the current electorate: managing power vs. devolving power. Of these options, the latter platform runs deeper and requires more opposition to the status quo of how government works - and it also represents an effort to cleanse the party's soul of its sins over the past two decades. A platform of devolving power back to people might not be electorally successful - it's impossible to know how aims tested with candidates capable of presenting such a case will actually work - but it is clearly defined, represents a true departure from the party's current brand, and is geared towards maximizing human liberty. In all these aspects, it strikes me as the right course toward building the coalition that can win not just one election, but in the long term. 

Ultimately, the conservative reform project is about a question of selling ideas. A populist libertarian approach seeks to convince the American people that they can achieve more by limiting government than by expanding it or by tweaking it. It offers them a simple, clarifying message, one which is easy to understand and cuts across traditional political boundaries. It is not a message likely to sit well with the elites. But it represents a clear break from the fusionism of the past, and a possible path forward toward a party and a coalition which actually takes the idea seriously that there are some things government should not do. 

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Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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