Jindal and “Populist Libertarianism”

Progressives (myself included) have had great sport with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Great Big Speech to the RNC in Charlotte last week–and with the rave reviews he seemed to be getting from a lot of conservative and MSM gabbers. But I haven’t seen any serious discussion of the actual content of Jindal’s speech from the Right until I ran across Peter Suderman’s essay at Reason, which took as its departure point Ben Domenech’s tweeted claim that Bobby had achieved some sort of “populist libertarianism” in the speech.

Now before quoting Suderman, I’d observe that the very existence of a “populist libertarianism” is problematic, if you take either word seriously (i.e., if you don’t buy into the idea that Tea Folk who want their Medicare left alone and/or favor theocracy are “libertarian”). Certainly blasting government is no proof of libertarianism. The all-time best at this game, George Wallace (who liked to talk about “pointy-headed bureaucrats carrying briefcases with nothing but peanut-butter-and-jelly sammiches in ’em!”), was no libertarian. And even radical anti-government remarks about tearing down government entirely aren’t “libertarian” unless it’s clear government wouldn’t be built back up in some preferred manner.

Suderman seems to agree:

[P]art of what’s fascinating here is that you can see the collision of two strains of right-of-center reformism: On the one hand, Jindal sounds notes that are awfully reminiscent of the Bush-era compassionate conservatism that disregarded basic budget soundness in favor of pro-growth economic happy talk. On the other hand, he suggests the outlines of a vision for wholesale, limited-government reform—one that not only asks how to make government work, but what government is actually for. It’s not a vision of “populist libertarianism” so much as a vision of populism and a vision of something kinda sorta friendly to libertarianism competing for dominance.

Suderman objects to Jindal’s promotion of block grants for any government function (presumably exempting national defense) worth doing for the obvious reason that the federal government would still be redistributing money to the states. In Jindal’s partial defense, he may, as many conservatives have done over the years, favor “block grants” as merely a way station to total devolution of responsibilities, and/or to elimination of them entirely. After all, the more power states have over governmental responsibilities, the more likely they are to engage in those exciting “races to the bottom” where states compete to see how servile they can become in the presence of potential “job creators.”

But Jindal would have to be a lot more explicit about his goals if he were to aspire to any kind of libertarianism. And maybe that’s where the “populism” comes in–or at least “populist” demagoguery. Bobby’s never very clear about the ultimate object of his policy ideas, such as they are. Sure, he’ll bash the teachers unions and education bureaucrats all day long in pushing his voucher experiment, but won’t much admit he’s flirting with the destruction of public education altogether, at least by any traditional definition of the term. He’ll propose getting rid of income taxes to make his state a mecca for businesses and retirees, but won’t much get into the implication that this maneuver will force the state to choose between high regressive sales taxes and sharply lower services.

But even to a relatively sympathetic observer like Suderman, the Smartest Guy In Every Room just isn’t thinking or talking very coherently. And any Republican should be very worried if this is the best the GOP’s got.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.