Paul Krugman thinks libertarian populism is bunk. So bunk, in fact, that he didn’t feel the need to actually tell his readers what it is. Presumably, associating it with the likes of Paul Ryan was enough to discredit the idea in the minds of most of his readers. And discrediting, rather than explaining (or understanding) “right-wing” ideas is what Paul Krugman does best.
So what is libertarian populism? And is Paul Ryan really the best exemplar of it? For those who want to know more, Jesse Walker has assembled a nice little reading list. I’ll follow his lead in endorsing the definition originally put forward by Ross Douthat:
a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of ‘bigness’ in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.
Libertarian populists are distrustful of big government, but they are also distrustful of big corporations and big banks, especially when the latter benefit from special protections and subsidies from the former. They are therefore opposed to “crony capitalism” in all its various manifestations – corporate welfare, bailouts, the Federal Reserve system, and so on.
Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner has been one of the most thoughtful and articulate proponents of libertarian populism, and his agenda for that movement is worth a close look. In practical politics, the movement has a much closer affinity to Ron Paul than to Paul Ryan. Among those currently in office, Rand Paul is a better match than Paul Ryan, though perhaps not quite as populist or as libertarian as his father.
Insofar as libertarian populists are fighting the good fight against cronyism, there’s a lot in their movement for Bleeding Heart Libertarians to admire. Whether it’s a promising path as a practical political strategy to win free-market votes from the working masses is an issue about which I have no particular expertise. But the idea that crony capitalism is a serious threat and a grave injustice is one that libertarians of all stripes – populist, bleeding heart, and left – can agree.
But what about the other elements of libertarian populism? It’s worth noting, I think, what we tend not to see on the libertarian populist agenda.
- There’s not much talk about among libertarian populists about the war on drugs, the devastation of which has been disproportionately concentrated in black, urban neighborhoods.
- There’s almost no talk of immigration liberalization, let alone open borders.
- There’s very little talk of the moral and economic case for free trade, except insofar as protectionist policies constitute another form of corporate welfare for domestic producers.
- There’s little discussion of the injustice of war. The expense of war to domestic taxpayers, maybe. But, of course, libertarians don’t think killing civilians abroad is wrong only (or even primarily) because it costs us a lot of money.
The common theme here, and the worry I have about libertarian populism, is the marginalization or abandonment of one of libertarianism’s most attractive and distinctive elements – its thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism. Libertarians stand out among other political groups for their rejection of nationalism, and for their commitment to the idea that all human beings, no matter where they live or what state claims authority over them, have the same basic moral rights. We believe that it’s wrong for our government to kill an innocent Iraqi just as much (and for just the same reason) as it’s wrong to kill an innocent American. We believe that it’s wrong to coercively prevent A and B from engaging in voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange, regardless of whether A and B live on the same side of a border or on different sides. Libertarian cosmopolitanism is thus the moral foundation for the longstanding libertarian commitment to the (near-sacred) trinity of free trade, free migration, and peace.
Libertarian populists have occasionally come down explicitly on the wrong side of some of these issues. Take, for instance, the “libertarian” argument that immigration restrictions are justifiable because immigrants can receive welfare and otherwise contribute to the violation of the libertarian rights of native citizens. And populist movements more generally have been famously hostile to free trade. Remember Pat Buchanan? But while cosmopolitan ideas are sometimes actively shunned, more often than not they are simply pushed to the side – ignored, rather than actively argued against. If, like me, you think those ideas are central to the libertarian vision, you will find this marginalization troubling. Will Wilkinson might be overstating things when he says that right-wing populism in America “has always amounted to white identity politics.” But if the connection isn’t entirely necessary, it isn’t entirely accidental, either. And it is one that libertarians, especially given our recent and recurring troubles on this matter, should take special care to avoid in ourselves, and confront in our comrades.
While I’m on the topic, I should say that it seems to me that there’s a good case to be made for identifying William Graham Sumner as the grandfather of libertarian populism. Sumner’s most famous essay, “The Forgotten Man,” which I recently summarized here, is a celebration and defense of the ordinary working American against the threat of big government. Sumner was a fierce critic of socialism, of course, but he viewed rent-seeking and crony capitalism (he used the terms “jobbery” and “plutocracy”) as an even greater threat to honest working men and women. And, like contemporary libertarian populists, he was a fierce critic of the banking system, of ungrounded paper currency, and the evil of inflation.
Moreover, Sumner provides an especially good model for contemporary libertarian populists insofar as he unambiguously avoids the pitfall of nationalism into which populists so often fall. Some of Sumner’s greatest essays are those in which he attacked protectionism, or forcefully critiqued American militarism and imperialism. He thus managed to remember the “Forgotten Man” of American politics without simultaneously forgetting everyone else who didn’t fit the populist mold of white, male, and American. In this respect, at least, contemporary libertarian populists would do well to emulate him.