Three Challenges to Libertarian Populism

Three Challenges to Libertarian Populism

By Ben Domenech - June 6, 2013

My essay at RealClearPolitics yesterday sparked several responses. But 2,000 words is insufficient when it comes to outlining a dynamic shift in the political construct, and there will be more to come on this topic, but I wanted to take a critical eye to my own proposal and identifying the internal tensions which could prevent it from taking hold. Here are three challenges I think libertarian populism is grappling with, and will face before the next presidential election and perhaps during it.

First, on Foreign Policy: There is a natural tension between the true libertarians and the populists on foreign policy, moreso than national security. Both are concerned about civil liberties and government spying programs and reject the Bush global freedom agenda as overly interventionist (there is no appetite for such things within the base outside of the foreign policy establishment in DC, and the offices of McCain, Graham, Ayotte, and Bill Kristol). But there is a natural Jacksonian lean to the populists, and always has been – Don’t Tread On Me is more than a slogan to them. They have fewer qualms about Gitmo, waterboarding, and wet work generally. Their concern about drones is mostly limited to whether the president is killing Americans, not the degree to which he is killing terrorists. Both strands are non-interventionist, but one is concerned about Bradley Manning, and the other is curious why he is still alive. While Paul, Lee, and others in Congress have made their foreign policy leanings known, one question which remains to be seen is how the libertarian populists who haven’t spoken much about foreign policy – Jindal, Walker, perhaps Cuccinelli – engage on this subject matter, and the reactions they inspire.

Second, on Immigration: Here the populists and the libertarians are often diametrically opposed, particularly on aspects such as E-Verify. The libertarian priority is meeting market needs: people should be able to hire whoever they want, for whatever purpose they want, at whatever price they agree upon. The populist priority is security and balancing against a workforce which undercuts their jobs. A proposal which sought to meet both their demands would predicate any reforms to the immigration system on completing a fence along the border, whether such a step would work or not. There is some common ground: keep in mind that libertarian populists do not trust government at all, so investing the bureaucracy with more authority to determine immigration levels and access – as the current proposal does – is anathema to both sides. Perhaps ironically, the failed Bush immigration proposal is closer to meeting the demands of this movement than they might know.

Third, on Culture Clash: This is the most significant problem and the likeliest one to derail this organic movement before it takes hold. The anti-government populists of the Tea Party are largely pro-life and pro-family, regular churchgoers with a healthy respect for faith and traditional marriage (even if they do not prioritize this issue above others). Their close-knit communities of home schoolers and co-op moms are intelligent and engaged, but they are also devout. This causes problems for the more atheist and agnostic strands of libertarianism, particularly the urban variety. Consider prominent libertarians like Cato’s Dave Boaz, who sneered openly at the rise of the Tea Party and recoiled at the number of Christians within it. Libertarian exclusivity here could prove a difficult barrier for this movement to overcome if their leaders do not see the common ground they have with the populists – a fact which smart libertarians increasingly recognize.

And then there is the issue of terminology. I’d like to quote from a reaction to this by one of the key figures writing along these lines, Robert Tracinski (if you view Thomas Sowell as the id of libertarian populism, Tracinski is the superego). “I agree that asking, "So what is your plan to run this giant, bloated big government apparatus?" misses the point. It reminds me of an odd challenge from Michael Lind at Salon, who argues that libertarianism is not a credible political philosophy because we can't name any countries that have adopted it. It is a challenge that is not quite honest (Lind rejects on ad hoc grounds a number of examples of countries with much smaller governments) and also astonishingly ignorant of history. The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.”

“You can criticize this system, but America lived under it for longer than it has lived under the modern regulatory and welfare state, so you can't say it's not "credible." And while life was nowhere near as good as it is for Americans today—after another century of progress—the country had just finished one of the greatest periods of growth and economic progress in all of human history. Life for the common man was better than it had ever been before. All of which means—to get back to Douthat and Domenech—that there are deep roots in American history for this "libertarian populist" agenda.” Indeed, one of my arguments in defense of Alexander Hamilton is that his perspective on the role of government was one far more limited than he is given credit for today – we essentially lived under his approach for a century and a half.

But Tracinski is uncomfortable with the term populist, “because it suggests that you're supposed to play to some kind of class-warfare resentment of "elites." By encouraging the common man's resentment of the rich, you risk getting back to the same mindset as Douthat, who insists that you have to base your reforms on "distributional issues," which is a euphemism for advocating redistribution of wealth, but in a "conservative" form.” I think here Tracinski is considering populism’s historical definition as opposed to its modern one. Sean Trende has argued that Republicans are victorious consistently when they embrace populism, and this is not an indication that they were engaging in class warfare along the lines of income. The elections of 1994 and 2010 were obvious expressions of conservative populism: a point where the right’s coalition presented ideas that speak to the concerns of engaged people. Much as I love free markets, a mere defense of "free markets" is a campaign that is destined to fail, a representation of an abstract idea which fails to evoke any sort of visceral reaction from any group other than the already-convinced. In a marketing battle between "free markets" and "fairness," fairness is going to win, because it requires no argument to make sense. And this is what populism really is about today: an expression that the game is rigged, the deck is stacked, the Bigs have their thumbs on the scale – and that the only way to make the game fair is to end the institutions which rig it. Tim Carney writes eloquently about this today.

Populism may be a term which insufficiently distinguishes this approach from the rest of the right’s “trust the aristocracy” agenda, but it is one the base understands as distinct from its historical representation. Consider this the natural evolution from Huey Long’s “every man a king” to Calvin Coolidge’s “Democracy is not a tearing down; it is a building up. It does not denial of the divine right of kings; it asserts the divine right of all men.” Where once the thread of American populism was about the redistribution of other people’s money, now it is about ending the government’s unfair redistribution of opportunity. This is a task which should unite the city mice and country mice, and with the right leadership, it will. 

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

Did We Vote for War?
Pat Buchanan · November 18, 2014

Ben Domenech

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter