Libertarianism That Is Popular

It’s a Friday in August, with not a whole lot of news going on, so let’s indulge in another round of that fun game: “What is Libertarian Populism?” I’ve offered some preliminary thoughts earlier, but they weren’t enough to earn me a shout-out in Conn Carroll’s brisk summary of the debate on the subject for the Washington Examiner.

Carroll runs through some of the supportive and critical definitions of LibPop, and comes up with his own bottom line:

The common thread running through all of these policies is simple: Yes, government, even the federal government, can play a positive role in the lives of all Americans. But far too often today, government, especially the federal government, makes it harder, not easier for Americans to freely cooperate.

Now this is an insight that probably no one from any point on the ideological spectrum would denounce as entirely wrong. There’s a very old strain of thinking on the left, subscribed to in various form by Wilsonian liberals, classic “populists,” and certainly Marxists, that explores and deplores the use of government power to reinforce private privilege. The huge dividing line between such critics of “captive government” and the LibPops is that the latter seem to assume that private privilege–or at least the kinds of private privilege of which they disapprove–would not exist without government. And that may be true if the validating power of government is understood as including the coercive enforcement of contracts and private property rights, and the creation and protection of the legal entity we call the “corporation.” Anarchists have long distinguished themselves by their consistent rejection of all coercive power used to regulate cooperative behavior, dating back to Proudhon’s contention that “property is theft.” The LibPops, of course, glory in precisely those forms of government coercion that most reinforce the private privileges they deem “natural.”

But that’s really an argument over the definition of “libertarianism” (a term, lest we forget, that anarchists have applied to themselves as regularly as have Objectivists or other defenders of absolute private property rights enforced by government). But what, exactly, makes it “populist?”

Michael Lind recently had a lot of fun with this question by comparing the utterances of the LibPops with those speaking for the American populist tradition:

[F]or the most part the original American populists proposed replacing what they believed to be corrupt public-private schemes with purely governmental agencies run by career civil servants. William Jennings Bryan, for example, proposed the nationalization of railroad trunk lines by the federal government. On August 29, 1919, Bryan told the House Commerce Committee: “If I had to choose between the concentration of all this power in New York in the hands of railway magnates and the centralization of all this power in the hands of government officials, I would without a moment’s hesitation prefer to risk concentration in the hands of public officials…. And now, repeating again that if I had to choose between this centralization in the hands of public officials and the kind of centralization the railroad magnates want in their hands in New York, I would infinitely prefer to take my chances on the Government officials in Washington.”

And so Lind concludes that by “populism” today’s libertarians really mean “a popular libertarianism, a libertarianism that majorities of Americans might vote for, not a movement that has anything to do with actual historic populism in the United States, which has generally been, to coin a phrase, illibertarian.”

Simple as it is, this characterization of the LibPop phenomenon is very hard to refute, insofar as LibPop theoreticians seem mainly concerned with getting politicians to emphasize the ancient libertarian prescriptions that undermine entrenched privilege while radically de-emphazing those that reinforce it–without, however, abandoning them.

Aside from its dishonesty, the problem with LibPop, as many critics have noted, is that even this truncated version of libertarianism is not, in fact, terribly popular, particularly among the apparent target audience of middle- and lower-middle class folk. It’s not even particularly popular among Republican politicians, as the recent farm bill debate and the party-wide “Mediscare” campaign utilized as a weapon against Obamacare illustrated for the thousandth time.

So if LibPop offers only a half-measure of its own libertarian ideology, and must fight uphill to make even that half-measure acceptable, then what good is it, other than as a rhetorical repackaging of very old arguments?

It’s tempting to say LibPop is just the latest effort to create an intellectual foundation for Paulism beyond cranky monetary meta-theories and paleoconservative hostility to internationalism. But as Carroll notes, Rand Paul has given the LibPops a wide berth, and some of its tribunes probably have a low opinion of the Paulites with their conspiracies and their panaceas. At a time when the prevailing sentiment in the conservative movement writ large is We’ve been right all along! it’s not clear this or any other kind of re-branding or re-thinking initiative has much traction in real politics.

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.