Populist Libertarianism?

One of the memes bouncing around the blogosphere of late has been the quite natural suggestion from libertarians that the Republican Party ought to make opposition to “crony capitalism” a signature in order to reduce the impression that it is simply the party of the privileged. In other words, instead of simply attacking government activism benefitting the poor, Republicans could attack government activism tout court, and the masses–whose trust in governmental institutions is reaching one of its periodic low points–would cheer.

While disclaiming support for corporate cronyism is a fine idea for either party, the odds that there will ever be a popular majority for any political gathering that is distinctly libertarian (other than in temporary positioning rhetoric) are very remote. Aside from the fact that such libertarian first principle as free trade and hard money are perpetually unpopular (at least when they have any real impact), while libertarian boogeymen like minimum wage laws and corporate taxation are perpetually popular, there’s the issue of libertarianism’s inherent hostility to democracy. Serious libertarians do not tend to consider their public policy beliefs as historically conditional or as requiring popular sanction for their validity; instead, they reflect eternal, natural laws, among which the most important is individual liberty.

This is the basis for the much-misunderstood but very real alliance of libertarians and Christian Right activists in the Tea Party movement: for very different reasons involving somewhat different issues, Randists and theocrats feel strongly about their policy prescriptions being permanently enshrined via constitutional measures, whether it’s an “originalist” interpretation of founding document or subsequently adopted supermajority requirements against public spending or taxation. Wherever their positions coincide (as with absolute property rights or the inalienable individual rights of the fetus), there you will find the “conservative movement” in full voice.

Perhaps libertarians can partially dominate a political party that gains or even maintains majority support. But it’s hard to be a convincing “populist” when you trust the people only when they happen to ratify your ideological beliefs, which never ever change even if your particular agenda or “message” is adjusted from time to time. And more to the point, even if you attack “corporate cronyism,” no one’s going to mistake you for Sockless Jerry Simpson if you are financed by the Koch Brothers and think extreme income inequality is nature’s way of telling most people they aren’t worth a whole lot.

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.