Populism

How Far Will Libertarian Populists Go?

Extending the critique

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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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  1. Not far enough?

  2. 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

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

    2. Its only slights less stupid than liberaltarian.

    3. Stupid term? Sure.

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

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. *rises to begin thunderous applause*

        THIS, THIS AND THIS!

        1. *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”?

          1. 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.

            1. Cool! Thanks!

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

        1. Some folks have already tried, hence the infamous “newsletters”.

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

      3. May favorite part is still the agents on segways.

        1. MY, not May.

      4. 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?

        1. 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.

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

            1. 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.

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

      /progtard

    3. 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.

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

          1. 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….

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

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. “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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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.

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

    2. 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.

      1. Such as?

        1. 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?

          1. 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?

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

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

    1. I’m not sure! Found it floating around online.

  14. I’m also casting my vote to immediately cease using the term “libertarian populism”. Don’t make us start demagoging this.

  15. 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.

  16. 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

    1. 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.

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