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The Libertarian Populist Agenda

The Libertarian Populist Agenda

By Ben Domenech - June 5, 2013

Ross Douthat engages with verve the concept of libertarian populism and finds some things he likes, but much he is skeptical of:

“To the extent that there’s a Big Idea for where the G.O.P. should go from here that has any real traction within the party (as opposed to among right-of-center pundits) and that doesn’t just reflect the self-interest of the G.O.P.’s big donors, it’s probably what Ben Domenech has termed “populist libertarianism” — a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of “bigness” in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well. This is a Tea Party idea from 2010, in a sense, but it’s been given more heft by figures like Senator Paul and by potential 2016 contenders like Bobby Jindal, and its imprint is visible across a range of policy debates…”

“[A] G.O.P. remade along libertarian-populist lines — more anti-interventionist abroad, suspicious of big government and big business at home — would be a much more interesting party, and in certain ways a more constructive force in American politics, than the G.O.P. that Mitt Romney led down to defeat last fall But could it win a presidential election? And would it deserve to? Right now I think the answers are no and no, because its broader economic agenda — to the extent that it exists — would be both politically untenable and mistaken on the merits.”

Douthat’s piece is quite fair and evenhanded, and it’s worth reading the whole thing. But of course, I have my disagreements.

For all this talk of late regarding conservative reform, the most successful conservative reform project of the post-Reagan era was not from the top down, but the bottom up. The Tea Party joined those who favored limited government together regardless of their priorities, and they were successful in a not insignificant part because they were running with the tides of American sentiment as opposed to against them – with a rising skepticism for institutions, particularly those of great size.

They wanted to reform the party, but they did not want the party to just be satisfied with a reform message. Where the traditional trends of Thomas Dewey tend Republicanism toward fixing the institutions of government and society, this new strand had more in common with Charles Murray, whose “What It Means to Be a Libertarian” makes the case not for fixing the departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, but for eliminating them and replacing them with, and I quote, “Nothing.”

Rand Paul is going to offer the GOP primary voters in 2016 (and beyond) a principled alternative to the establishment's soft technocracy. He is presenting a brand of libertarianism which offers the people a long overdue challenge to the establishment and the fusionist movement. Libertarian populists recognize intrinsically that the old fusionism is dead. The seat atop the legs of the stool was communism, and then for a brief time – really, just 2004 – Islamic terrorism. Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy. The New Fusionism is libertarian populism, and it understands: there is no stool.

Now with this positioning comes certain problems – namely, that it can lead to the kind of skeletal policy proposals Douthat critiques, instead of taking the next step of proposing alternatives which connect with people where they are. Here, Douthat’s skepticism shines through, doubting that populists and libertarians are capable of governing, or of winning, as well as the elites. I would pose the alternative view: that this is a country no longer in the thrall of top-down elitism, and ripe for a more bottom-up, organic alternative. He objects to the types of Great Society reforms such a project would favor not just on political grounds but as bad government. But here again his faith is in fixing the existing institutions and reforming the public sector… which requires the trust of the American people.

Here, we see the problem: Douthat and many of the Beltway Burkeans, as wise as they are, are essentially preaching a message of soft technocracy which runs against the tides of our times. It relies on restoring trust in our institutions – a Romneyesque "we can run government better and more efficiently than the Democrats"– while libertarian leaning politicians are capitalizing on the total lack of trust in those institutions to a great degree, and across partisan lines. This is a case which rejects solely incrementalist approaches as insufficient, and instead aims to tear down efforts of big government and big business, root and branch.

Yet this is not all it aims for: it aims at breaking the Republican brand away from the concept of Big, a concept which the vast majority of young voters accept as truth.

It supports measures which leave people alone (Matt Kibbe’s dictum of don't hurt them, don't take their stuff) and protects civil society (the importance of religious liberty and the importance of localism) without falling into the "compassionate" embrace of big. Douthat cites a few of its aims from the Rand Paul approach – a balanced budget amendment, flatter and simpler taxes, and more – but there is also a stronger focus on issues which cut across party lines, including reform of higher education, prison and justice systems, civil liberty protections, and an assault on D.C. cronyism from green energy to Big Banks.

Libertarian populists understand that government has made the problems of debt worse on a national level and an individual one. They understand that government’s approach to education has hurt as well, with nationalized student loans and an educational system which rewards cronies and punishes innovation. They overlap with many across the right in seeking an open educational system that delivers real equal opportunity to every American, regardless of color. Here, the libertarian populists break thoroughly from the soft civic-minded technocrats: they believe that the government school systems are deplorable, and effective education reform has to break out of that system in ways that will inevitably lead to upheaval. And they are right.

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

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