How Far Will Libertarian Populists Go?

THAT'S THE FELLAS! LET'S GO GET 'EM!When people discuss "libertarian populism," it isn't always clear whether they're referring just to free-market populism -- that is, a small-government alternative to crony capitalism -- or to a broader libertarian vision. In their more optimistic moments, the LibPops seem to imagine a new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties. If the Republican Party really did make that turn, that would be an enormous step forward for American politics. There's a niche within the GOP where such ideas are welcome, but I'm rather skeptical, to say the least, that those dissident Republicans will ever take over the party.

But if libertarian populism isn't going to remake the Republican establishment, it could still go a long way toward remaking populism, an American current that has long had both libertarian and authoritarian elements; anything that strengthens the anti-state side of that tradition has to be a positive development. So I hope the LibPops will deepen their critique, offering disgruntled Americans alternatives to a wider range of unpleasant policies. It's easy to reel off programs that prop up privileged economic interests, from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Defense. (Military spending funds a great deal more than just the military.) But there's a larger set of social trends that should interest libertarian populists as well, not because they distort the economy toward privileged economic interests -- though some of them do that too -- but because they reinforce class divisions or bureaucratize everyday life. Here is a far-from-exhaustive list:

It's a sorting machine. Kind of a literal-minded illustration, I know.* Higher education serves as a sorting machine that separates social classes. Washington recognizes this in a hazy way, but it responds with plans to put yet more people in debt to go to college, rather than wondering whether too many jobs require a college degree.

* The current health care system not only channels most medical transactions through insurers but, thanks to tax incentives adopted in the 1940s and '50s, leaves most people dependent on their employers for insurance. This does not merely increase health care costs and health care bureaucracy; it makes people more scared to quit their jobs, skewing power within the workplace toward management.

* The planning department of a major American city is typically controlled by the area's most powerful corporate interests, which can be ruthless in using eminent domain, zoning, subsidies, public-private partnerships, tax incentives, and other tools to remake a region to their economic advantage. In the process they have displaced entire neighborhoods, destroying the informal social networks and indigenous economies that thrived there.

* The American safety net is a confusing maze of programs, many of which double as a way for paternalists to stick their snouts into poor people's lives. It would be both simpler and less intrusive to replace the lot of them with a single negative income tax or basic income grant. (It could also be cheaper: Just as the defense budget could be reduced considerably if it were focused not on policing the world but on actual defense, the safety net would be less expensive if it limited itself to giving cash to people in poverty.)

* In addition to its many other ill effects, mass incarceration devastates low-income communities, puts offenders at an economic disadvantage for life, and creates a caste of prison laborers who undercut the wages of workers on the outside.

Those are all populist concerns, and they are all areas where libertarians have a lot of useful ideas to contribute. If libertarian populism is to be more than that thing we all blogged about in the summer of '13, those are among the topics it should tackle.

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  • Drake||

    Not far enough?

  • Irish||

    It would be great if people stopped using the term libertarian populist. It was stupid when it was first uttered, and seems to have somehow gotten even dumber with time

  • anon||

    Wholeheartedly agree. I fucking hate the term; it means about nothing.

  • robc||

    Its only slights less stupid than liberaltarian.

  • ||

    Stupid term? Sure.

    But if it moves people in the direction of liberty, I'll take it.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Fuck Yokeltarianism.

    Seriously.

    But there's a larger set of social trends that should interest libertarian populists as well ... because they reinforce class divisions

    The horror!

    Higher education serves as a sorting machine that separates social classes.

    So?

    The current health care system ... leaves most people dependent on their employers for insurance. ... [I]t makes people more scared to quit their jobs, skewing power within the workplace toward management.

    Well, that's why you could always, you know, be self-employed. That's one of the driving factors of entrepreneurial, the opportunity "to
    be your own boss". As you point out, there are plenty of economic reasons to advocate for free-market health care reform; we don't need to attempt to take the "wage slavery" argument from the Marxists to make our point.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The American safety net is a confusing maze of programs, many of which double as a way for paternalists to stick their snouts into poor people's lives. It would be both simpler and less intrusive to replace the lot of them with a single negative income tax or basic income grant. (It could also be cheaper: Just as the defense budget could be reduced considerably if it were focused not on policing the world but on actual defense, the safety net would be less expensive if it limited itself to giving cash to people in poverty.)

    Fuck the "safety net". Taxation combined with "social services" equates to theft for the purposes of wealth redistribution. bitbutter makes this point saliently in his 4-min animation "George Ought to Help". i suggest, Mr. Walker, that you watch, and if necessary rewatch it, until you understand this fucking point. Again, it seems "populism" is just another word for looting. (As helpfully pointed out by the odious picture at the beginning of the article.)

    In addition to its many other ill effects, mass incarceration devastates low-income communities, puts offenders at an economic disadvantage for life, and creates a caste of prison laborers who undercut the wages of workers on the outside.

    You were doing so well until you reached the last clause of your sentence.

  • Swiss Servator - past LTC(ret)||

    *rises to begin thunderous applause*

    THIS, THIS AND THIS!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    *bows*

    Thank you, thank you.

    Hey, LTC John, by the way, are you a wargamer? If so, do you play Ambush Alley's "Force on Force"?

  • BakedPenguin||

    HM, if you like wargames, and older games (I think you linked to gog.com once), you might be into V 4 Victory. It's essentially a hex-style turn based war game ala Third Reich, only limited to individual battles.

    They have Velikiye Luki, a 1942 Russian front battle, Utah Beach, Normandy, and Market Garden.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Cool! Thanks!

  • Metazoan||

    I agree with you, HM. But do you think it might be helpful to sell libertarianism to some people under a populist guise?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Some folks have already tried, hence the infamous "newsletters".

    I don't think we need to go down that route again.

  • From the Tundra||

    What happens when they find out there's no free shit at the end? Populism and libertarianism seem rather incompatible.

  • anon||

    "In the long run, we're all dead."

    /Keynes

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    In the United States, producerists are distrustful of both major political parties. The Republican Party is rejected for its support of corrupt Big Business and the Democratic Party for its advocacy of those they view as unproductive, lazy, and waiting for their entitlement handouts (Kazin, Stock, Berlet & Lyons).

    The Reform Party of the United States of America often uses producerist rhetoric. Populist producerism (and nativist policies) are also seen in the rhetoric of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Jörg Haider in Austria, and similar dissident politicians across Europe (Betz & Immerfall, Betz).

    Producerism is sympathetic to the idea that labor is an end in itself, inherently ennobling, and thus should be protected at least to some extent from the chaotic forces of consumer choice and market competition. In some Commonwealth of Nations countries, this position is used as an abstract definition of producerism, which is then held as the opposite of an abstract consumerism, the position that the free choice of the consumer should dictate the economic activity of a society. In other parts of the world, especially the United States, such a clear-cut opposition is not feasible.
  • Irish||

    In the United States, producerists are distrustful of both major political parties. The Republican Party is rejected for its support of corrupt Big Business and the Democratic Party for its advocacy of those they view as unproductive, lazy, and waiting for their entitlement handouts (Kazin, Stock, Berlet & Lyons).

    Well then producerists are idiots. The Democratic Party is equally supportive of corrupt big business provided it's the right kind of corrupt big business and is run by slavering progressives.

  • Calidissident||

    And Republicans are certainly not opposed to giving handouts to unproductive and lazy people

  • robc||

    May favorite part is still the agents on segways.

  • robc||

    MY, not May.

  • Jesse Walker||

    You were doing so well until you reached the last clause of your sentence.

    Because what could be more libertarian than creating a special class of low-wage workers who are essentially barred from quitting their jobs & who have their living expenses subsidized by the state?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I'm not arguing that. But, c'mon, you must be aware of the racial/ethnic implications behind using "Them prisoners are takin' our jobs" as a "libertarian populist" talking point in Drug War America.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I suspect the prisoners would also prefer to work in an open marketplace.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I think we're arguing past each other. I'm not denying that any of the things you've mentioned are problems, but I'm questioning the wisdom of using the rhetoric of populism to address them.

    You're absolutely right in that the private-public nature of prisons have a negative effect on our liberty and our economy. However, lighting a fire in the dry brush that is the populace at large is as dangerous. The "(mostly Black and Hispanic) prisoners are takin' our jobs" meme is very much in danger of being co-opted into a Producerist critique, which I think would be harmful to libertarianism (Big and small L-ian).

    It would be much better to focus on how the public-private partnerships in the corrections industry led to perverse incentives in sentencing. That's something of equal concern to "the masses" and addresses all of the same problems but without the Producerist rhetorical baggage.

  • ||

    Not everybody can quit their job and become an entrepreneur. Check your rich, white privilege.

    /progtard

  • Jesse Walker||

    Well, that's why you could always, you know, be self-employed.

    Y'know, when I wrote "quit their jobs," I thought it was clear that this included "quit their jobs to work for themselves." I mean, that's one of the big beefs people have with the employer-based health-insurance system: It creates big headaches for the self-employed. But apparently I needed to spell this out. Live & learn.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Again, no one denies this. One of the definitions of entrepreneurialism is that it is an economic activity that includes risk. Apparently, I need to spell that out.

    Do you think populist overtures to circumvent the "golden rule" (i.e. He who has the gold makes the rules) will make our economy freer or not? Likewise, do you think the government acting to reduce risk will make our economy freer or not?

  • Jesse Walker||

    do you think the government acting to reduce risk will make our economy freer or not?

    I think the government acting to reduce risks that were introduced or exacerbated by tax and regulatory policy will make the economy freer, yes.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I think the government acting to reduce risks that were introduced or exacerbated by tax and regulatory policy will make the economy freer, yes.

    Again, no argument here. But in a populist mode, are you sure it will end there? I mean fluctuating interest rates and currency exchange rates are kinda risky....

  • Free Society||

    The current health-care system is not a product of free markets.

  • R C Dean||

    The authoritarian strain of populism is embedded in the anti-corporate leg of the stool. Your deal with the devil would be more economic command-and-control under the guise of anti-corporatism, in exchange for better(?) policy on intenventionism and civil liberties.

  • ||

    Lefties seem pretty amenable to "we shouldn't punish penalize corporations for behaving in ways encouraged by subsidies and TBTF bullshit, we should just take away the fucking subsidies" argument. They get to feel good about their anti-corporatism and we get to feel good about taking a hatchet to market distortion. It seems like a worthwhile thing to plug away at.

  • R C Dean||

    Lefties are quite comfortable with crony capitalism, as long as its their cronies making bank. Test their commitment to doing away with subsidies by putting green energy subsidies on the list.

  • ||

    That then depends on who you're arguing with. The lower information voter (like the guy who told me that fracking breaks up the crust of the earth and causes more earthquakes) is going to go all jelly-kneed, but higher information voters can usually be reasoned with that if peak oil is really at issue than cutting traditional energy subsidies would cause green technology to be less cost prohibitive comparatively. They squirm a bit, but will often concede the point.

    I honestly don't know how one would sell laissez faire markets to the first guy.

  • ChrisO||

    I've never seen this mythical libertarian strain of American populism in action. Every single populist movement in American history has been rooted in authoritarian impulses. Not surprising, since it's typically based on charismatic politicians stoking envy in the populace in order to get an emotional response.

  • Michael Hihn||

    Populism need not be authoritarian, but it's doubtful that libertarians would even know how to champion the interests of average and low-income Americans.

    For example, the uninsured rate in the Medicaid eligibles is HIGHER than for privately insured! 12 million Americans eligible for either Medicaid or SCHIP (children) are eligible but haven't enrolled. There are no doctors willing to treat for as little as $17 per visit, unless they have a lot of private-insured to overcharge.

    Medicare is the exact opposite, with treatment and promises totaling $40 trillion, plus $200 billion per year, 22% of all personal income taxes.

    Why the huge difference in Medicare and Medicaid funding? Wait for it ...
    Seniors vote. Poor people do not. THAT was a populist argument.

    I need to protect it because I'm still selling a more comprehensive view. Comments appreciated.

    Copyright 2013 by Michael J Hihn, All Rights Reserved.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "A new three-legged stool for the GOP: anti-corporatist economics, an anti-imperial foreign policy, and (on the federal level, at least) a defense of privacy and civil liberties....I'm rather skeptical, to say the least, that those dissident Republicans will ever take over the party."

    I think what we're seeing probably isn't a new found commitment to philosophy of libertarianism or even a populist movement. It seems more likely to me that there are people in Republican party who are against whatever Barack Obama stands for, which might be summed up as corporatist economics, an imperial foreign policy, and an attack on our privacy and civil liberties.

    In other words, it may not be a movement in values, per se, but more of a reaction against the Democrat presently sitting in the White House.

  • ||

    I don't think Paul and Amash are going to disappear into the background if a Republican becomes president. Just about everybody else will though. And then the Dems will suddenly find their voice against all the evil corporatist, imperial, snoopy tendencies of said pres.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    that's why you could always, you know, be self-employed.

    That's nice, but virtually every aspect of government policy seems specifically designed to stamp out self-employment.

  • Irish||

    And they've by and large succeeded. Based on what I've seen, my generation has to be the least entrepreneurial in American history.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    but virtually every aspect of government policy seems specifically designed to stamp out self-employment

    I'm not arguing that. But populist measures to businesses for daring to having some amount of control over their employees isn't a fix.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Such as?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Are you asking for examples of aspects of government policy that discourage entrepreneurialism or examples of populist measures that punish businesses for trying to retain employees?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Could you clarify your critique? I think JW is saying that federal policy discriminates in favor of employer-provided health plans at the expense of plans a worker gets for him/herself. As a result, people are more tied to their jobs than they would be under a free-market system, because job-switchers or people who go to work for themselves have to worry about losing their health coverage.

    Isn't that the criticism? What is wrong with it?

  • Michael Hihn||

    People have been able to switch jobs, even with a pre-existing condition, since 1996.

    Self-employed CAN be tougher with a pre-existing condition. But if healthy, "association coverage" has offered group plans to individuals and very small businesses for about 50 years -- same thing the ObamaCare exchanges do, but at 90% lower cost. That would mean trade association; I created one myself in the early 80s. National Federation of Independent Business has a large number of customizable plans more flexibility than the Obamacare exchanges.

    Group insurance is just a bunch of names on a list. The barrier here is the state insurance regulators, some of which don't allow association coverage.

  • Free Society||

    Again. A libertarian has nothing to defend in the health-care industry since it's prices are largely fixed and and centrally planned. Not a market problem, it's a power problem.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Based on what I've seen, my generation has to be the least entrepreneurial in American history.

    I'm not sure that's completely correct, but modern entrepreneurship seems almost completely centered on the internet. My suspicion is this is based largely on politicians' inability to get out in front of it and cry "You can't do that!" (yet). I read a pretty convincing article several years ago about how Indian high tech innovation only happened because the regulatory bureaucracy was blindsided before they could squelch it with thousands of pages of restrictions.

    Creating a "social networking" app can be done safely out of view.

    It's pretty hard to build a stamping plant to make Hello Kitty lunchboxes while staying under the radar.

  • ||

    modern entrepreneurship seems almost completely centered on the internet.

    I would think that it is at least in part due to the fact that you can get spectacularly wealthy in a relatively short period of time versus starting say, your own construction company or inventing something to meet the demands of a particular market.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Like DesigNate implied, my cousin's roommate's brother-in-law got spectacularly rich in a short period of time by stripping in front of an Internet Web cam.

    obviouslyfakewebsite.com

  • Michael Hihn||

    I've been an entrepreneur coach for 35 years. I'm only one person, but I don't see any difference in entrepreneurship with the the 70s, or in what businesses they go into (of then-existing businesses). Only a tiny handful get spectacularly wealthy with the internet.

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Those are all populist concerns, and they are all areas where libertarians have a lot of useful ideas to contribute.

    Oh Jesse,

    You haven't figured out yet that libertarianism is an exclusivist religious cult and not a political movement?

    Libertarians are mostly interested in denouncing heresy and exclamations of purity, not building political coalitions. So the libertarian populists will be denounced for polluting the purity of the libertarian brand.

  • Michael Hihn||

    denounced or shot to death. :-)

  • The Late P Brooks||

    that's one of the big beefs people have with the employer-based health-insurance system: It creates big headaches for the self-employed.

    As soon as I can go to my local insurer and sign up for the same coverage at the same price as any random corporate worker bee (and as soon as that same worker bee isn't dropped like a hot rock by the insurer when he walks off the job), I will stop saying employer offered insurance is not a massive market distortion.

  • ||

    Years ago I saw an older lefty radical go on a tirade about how evil employer based healthcare is. He made essentially the same complaints that a libertarian would but couched it in fairness and talking about how it was systematically designed to screw you at your most vulnerable (right after you've lost your job). I generally try to work in the same idiom when arguing with lefty friends.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's not the employer offering the insurance that causes the market distortion; it's the government's tax incentives and other interference that causes the distortion.

    As a business owner competing for labor, I have every right to make my business seem more attractive for workers by offering health benefits.

  • Michael Hihn||

    I love your screenname!

    I've run small-business organizations and sponsored health plans. I assume you mean that you should not have a tax-preference monopoly in offering it tax-free, just a level playing field where employers can offer what they want to gain employees.

    Without the tax preference, we'd probably revert to pre-FDR, when ethnic and fraternal lodges provided so much coverage. Your employees would have a LOT more choices, so it might not work as well for you.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Speaking strictly on my own behalf, "Populism" has an extremely negative connotation. As somebody above said, historical populist movements seem to be thinly disguised envy politics.

  • johnl||

    What I don't understand is why Jesse is calling this libertarian populism. Libertarians have always understood that not only central governments but also local governments, churches, plutocrats, guilds, and clans can all constrain opportunity to the point of oppression.

  • Jesse Walker||

    What I don't understand is why Jesse is calling this libertarian populism.

    It's not my phrase. There's a debate in the press and the blogosphere right now about something people are calling "libertarian populism," and so I thought it would be interesting to consider what a genuinely libertarian sort of populism would look like.

  • Hash Brown||

    What's the source of the upper illustration? (Just curious.)

  • Jesse Walker||

    I'm not sure! Found it floating around online.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I'm also casting my vote to immediately cease using the term "libertarian populism". Don't make us start demagoging this.

  • ||

    My opinion:

    Everyone here needs to define their terms. The word "populism" has several different meanings.

    Here is what I found in a quick search.

    A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.
    (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people
    an egalitarian political philosophy or movement that promotes the interests of the common people.
    the principles and doctrines of any political party asserting that it represents the rank and file of the people.

    Pretty big difference between the first and third. Which are we talking about here?

    I put it to you, what is good for the elites is also good for the common folk. In that context populism isn't a dirty word. In the context of class warfare, it is.

  • Michael Hihn||

    But the elites, especially the libertarian elites, have no clue how to talk with the average person. I agree with Sharon Presley on that. And I've been there in the trenches.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    As I understand populism, it is based on the following ideas:

    (a) the big guys (Them) are oppressing the Little Guys (Us).

    (b) the Big Guys run the government in their own interests, helping them screw the Little Guys.

    (c) the Little Guys should take over the government and run it in their own interest, that is, helping the Little Guys against the Big Guys.

    Traditionally, this means a populist government taking over and enforcing regulations on the private sector in the supposed interest of keeping the powerful Big Guys in line.

    Thus, traditionally, populists part company with the libertarians at the point where libertarians say the government should be an impartial arbiter between Big Guys and Little Guys, enforcing contracts (even "unfair" ones), administering justice (even punishing Little Guys if they happen to break stuff and beat people up during a strike, for instance), maybe even providing a basic social safety net (at least if you go with Hayek rather than Rothbard), but not putting a thumb on the scales to tell people what contracts to make, or that some people have too much stuff and should give it to other

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    In other words, your true-blue populist thinks libertarians enforce a false neutrality which objectively favors the Big Guys - in a libertarian society a bunch of fat men with cigars and monocles get to sit around a table and exploit the Little Guys an the government won't do anything about it.

    The libertarian critique should approach these populists by explaining how, as government grows more arbitrary, the Big Guys inherently acquire more power, not less, to screw the Little Guys. That is, break the illusion of a benevolent God-King who loves the poor and makes the rich share their stuff with the poor, because fairness. A government powerful enough to do *that* isn't going to be run by the poor and oppressed, but by the kind of people who come to the top of the heap in an arbitrary government - i.e., the rich and powerful Big Guys.

  • Michael Hihn||

    Populism means championing the values and aspirations of the average American, which may or may not include wealth redistribution, and which we libertarians happen to suck at anyhow.

  • Michael Hihn||

    Libertarian populism may be just another excuse to babble about theory that voters could care less about. Some of the rare policy proposals include things like repealing the payroll tax for Social Security because it's "regressive." It's not regressive because both taxes and benefits are capped. Populism need not mean pandering for votes with wealth redistribution schemes, for this we need libertarians?

    It might also help if libertarians understood what we criticize. For example, there are much better arguments against an employer-based healthcare system than the one given here, that people are afraid to switch jobs. Insured workers have had federally guaranteed portability when changing jobs, even with a pre-existing condition, only since 1996.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Insured workers have had federally guaranteed portability when changing jobs, even with a pre-existing condition, only since 1996.

    HIPAA may have put a dent in the problem but it hardly solved it (and not just in the sense that its intrusive and complex rules aren't the way a libertarian would want to solve it). You don't have the flexibility that you'd have with an insurance market that isn't largely channelled through employers (and a medical market that isn't largely channelled through insurance).

  • Michael Hihn||

    It's not complex at all. I used it after my divorce. Took me maybe 15 minutes.

    If you're talking an entirely new insurance market, sure, but I was responding to the point in the Jesse's column.

  • Jesse Walker||

    I said that the HIPAA rules writ large are complex. Whether the individual experience is complex depends on what sort of switch you're making.

    To the larger point: While there's a longstanding debate about how common job lock is, the phenomenon clearly didn't disappear after 1996. Nor do I expect it to disappear after the Obamacare exchanges that are supposed to fix it now are in place.

  • Michael Hihn||

    "I said that the HIPAA rules writ large are complex.

    I missed that. I simply said you are wrong to claim that people are afraid to change jobs. Or if they are afraid it would be nice if thet got the staignht scoop.

    It was quite easy. They send you a form. You send it back. Basically, one provides proof of coverage and eligiblity.

    Hmm, I don't want to defend ObamaCare, but since thw law explicitly bans denial of coverage, there's no way it can continue. No offense, but you seem to have it backwards. There is TOO LITTLE control. A pregnant woman can by coverage in her ninth month, cancel it two months later, repeat that for several kids and must pay the same monthly premium as a conscientious woman. There is a fine, sorry a tax, of ... $65.

    Who pays for the childbirth? In fact, those freeloaders will necessarily increase premiums on everyone else. Most of ObamaCare is paid for by higher premiums on (mostly) employers, in the (so-called) Great Recession.

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