How Far Will Libertarian Populists Go?

Extending the critique


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:

* 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.