Question: What is a libertarian populist? Answer: A libertarian in disguise.
That is my conclusion, after perusing much of the recent discussion of whether a new “libertarian populism” (or “populist libertarianism”) could prove to be a winning formula for the exhausted and discredited American right.
At first glance, creating a common ideology to unite the libertarian and populist wings of today’s right must be an appealing idea for GOP strategists. But to succeed, both parents would have to contribute to the genetic makeup of the libertarian populist baby. The leading advocates of libertarian populism, however, look very much like run-of-the-mill libertarians to me.
Ben Domenech, for example, tries to define libertarian populism by arguing that it takes “a few of its aims from the Rand Paul approach – a balanced budget amendment, flatter and simpler taxes, and more – but there is also a stronger focus on issues which cut across party lines, including reform of higher education, prison and justice systems, civil liberty protections, and an assault on D.C. cronyism from green energy to Big Banks.” But all of this is standard-issue libertarianism, including libertarian critiques of “prison and justice systems” and “civil liberty protections.” Nothing new here, folks, move along.
What Domenech and others mean by “populist” appears to be “popular.” They want 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.
Consider the 1892 platform of the original populists, the People’s Party:
The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.
The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.
It reminds me of an odd challenge from Michael Lind at Salon, who argues that libertarianism is not a credible political philosophy because we can't name any countries that have adopted it. It is a challenge that is not quite honest (Lind rejects on ad hoc grounds a number of examples of countries with much smaller governments) and also astonishingly ignorant of history. The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.
The United States of the late nineteenth century, which according to Domenech was “[t]he libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it,” was considered a dystopian nightmare by the original populists at the time—“a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.”
If they really are inspired by the American populist legacy, and are not just opportunists trying to rebrand libertarian ideology, then self-described libertarian populists should be able to point to at least to some elements of the populism of a hundred years ago that still inspire them.
Bimetallism? Free silver? Apparently not. As Domenech writes, the America of William Jennings Bryan and the Populists “was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.”
Okay, today’s libertarian populists don’t favor debtor-friendly inflation (the real motive for support of bimetallism). Do libertarian populists agree with the original populists in supporting unions? According to the People’s Party platform, “The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection…”
What? What’s that you say? Libertarian populists aren’t for labor unions?
Well, how about restricting immigration that might reduce the wages of some American workers, another complaint of the original Populists—“imported pauperized labor beats down their wages….”
Here the populists and the libertarians are often diametrically opposed, particularly on aspects such as E-Verify. The libertarian priority is meeting market needs: people should be able to hire whoever they want, for whatever purpose they want, at whatever price they agree upon. The populist priority is security and balancing against a workforce which undercuts their jobs. A proposal which sought to meet both their demands would predicate any reforms to the immigration system on completing a fence along the border, whether such a step would work or not. [emphasis added]
Shorter Ben Domenech: Fake out the gullible populists with a possibly unworkable fence, while giving the open-borders libertarians what they want: unrestricted immigration of cheap labor to the U.S. This kind of “libertarian populism” looks very much like a combination of real libertarianism and fake populism.
Point Three of the People’s Party platform was a progressive income tax: “We demand a graduated income tax.” Sorry, populists—if Ben Domenech is an authoritative spokesman for libertarian populism, you can’t have that one, either. Remember, according to Domenech:
The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank.
The only issue on which today’s self-described libertarian populists and the original populists of yesteryear would seem to agree is opposition to “crony capitalism”—rent-seeking by corporations in cahoots with corrupt government officials and institutions. Indeed, a denunciation of what is nowadays called crony capitalism is part of the populist platform:
From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.
But non-hyphenated libertarians routinely defend themselves against the claim that they are shills for corporations, by stating their opposition to crony capitalism and corporate welfare, for libertarian rather than populist reasons.
Besides, for 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.”
I have to admit that I find the idea of a political-intellectual heir to both William Jennings Bryan and Ayn Rand tantalizing. Undoubtedly their offspring would be incredibly long-winded and preternaturally argumentative.
Alas, all the talk of “libertarian populism” to the contrary, such a mésalliance has not taken place. Plutocracy’s La Pasionaria has not even met the Boy Orator of the Platter, much less borne his child. She has merely dressed up for Halloween.
But you can put Ayn Rand in overalls and hand her a pitchfork, and that doesn’t make her a libertarian populist.